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Senate Bill Targets Troubled Prison System

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

With Florida's corrections system under scrutiny because of inmate deaths and alleged misconduct, a Senate committee next week will take up a wide-ranging bill aimed at improving prison safety and addressing issues such as the use of force by guards.

The 29-page bill is slated to go Monday to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which heard testimony last week from newly appointed Corrections Secretary Julie Jones. During that testimony, Jones pointed to problems including understaffed prisons and a lack of training for guards who deal with mentally ill inmates.

One of the prominent themes of the bill (SPB 7020) is trying to increase the focus on safety in prisons. Current law emphasizes the role of the Department of Corrections in maintaining the security of prisons, but the bill would put into law a similar focus on ensuring the safety of employees and prisoners.

In part, it would require periodic inspections and audits to look for safety problems in prisons. As an example, audits of prison buildings would be required to "include the identification of blind spots or areas where staff or inmates may be isolated and the deployment of video monitoring systems and other monitoring technologies in such areas."

A series of events during the past year has led to investigations and widespread questions about the prison system. Much of that scrutiny started after the Miami Herald reported last summer about the death of mentally ill inmate Darren Rainey at Dade Correctional Institution. Rainey died after guards allegedly forced him to shower in scalding water as punishment.

The scrutiny also has included probes of inmate deaths by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a whistleblower lawsuit by a group of corrections investigators.

The Senate bill would try to address several of the key issues that have emerged. For instance, when correctional officers are being taught about the use of force, they would be required to receive specialized training "for effectively managing in non-forceful ways mentally ill inmates who may exhibit erratic behavior."

Also, guards who have been written up twice for incidents involving inappropriate use of force would not be able to work closely with inmates who are mentally ill or on psychotropic medications.

The bill also would address a frequently cited issue about prison staff being afraid of retribution from co-workers if they report wrongdoing. 

One part of the bill would allow staff members to make anonymous and confidential reports to the Department of Corrections' inspector general if they witness abuse or neglect of inmates but fear retribution.

In addition, the bill would require the department to establish a policy to protect inmates and employees from retaliation for reporting physical or sexual abuse or for cooperating with investigations. 

The policy, in part, would have to include "multiple protection measures, such as housing changes or transfers for inmate victims or abusers, removal of alleged abusive employees or alleged abusive inmates from contact with victims, and services for employees who fear retaliation for reporting abuse or for cooperating with investigations."