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Florida's New Prison Chief Seen As Friendly To Reform

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Bob Jagendorf
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

People who study Florida prisons closely — from conservative lawmakers to reform advocates and the loved ones of incarcerated people — responded positively to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recently announced pick to run the Florida Department of Corrections.

Our Florida Times-Union news partner reports a retired U.S. Army major general, incoming corrections secretary Mark Inch was previously appointed by President Donald Trump to run the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He resigned abruptly in May amidst national media reports that painted him as opposed to the First Step Act, a federal criminal justice reform effort led by Jared Kushner.

But in recent media interviews and in his own op-ed leading up to the First Step Act’s passing through Congress in December, Inch espoused his support for reform and outlined his own vision of corrections.

That caught the attention of state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg who chairs the Senate’s criminal justice appropriations committee and frequently calls attention to the challenges facing Florida prisons.

“We have a great opportunity over the next four years to create the best prison system in the country,” Brandes said.

Brandes, who rarely paints a rosy picture of Florida prisons, said his optimism is fueled by Inch’s decades of experience in criminal justice — albeit in the military realm — and his “reform-minded mentality.”

The senator sees Inch as a potential likeminded ally to help sell his fellow lawmakers on the merits of criminal justice reform, specifically on the increased use of court diversion and more transition services for formerly incarcerated people.

“He’s somebody who has spent his life trying to make these types of systems better,” Brandes said. “I don’t think he was brought in to maintain the status quo.”

The status quo is not a good one, but much of the onus falls on the Legislature, which has not given the Department of Corrections much in the way of funding, Brandes conceded.

The underfunding has led to a ripple effect starting with personnel issues. Staff shortages lead to longer shifts and stagnant pay leads to high turnover rates. Those issues then contribute to spikes in contraband and gang violence.

Despite the copious challenges, Brandes isn’t the only one optimistic about turning the prisons around.

Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice, said she knew little to nothing about Inch, but nonetheless had “huge hopes for a change at FDC.”

“With a supportive governor, anything is possible,” Brodsky said.

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Ben Conarck - The Florida Times-Union