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Senators Want Outside Prison Oversight

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

Saying that they no longer have trust in Florida’s prison system, some legislators are pushing ahead with a sweeping proposal that would strip Gov. Rick Scott of complete control of the system while creating an independent commission that could investigate future allegations of corruption or problems.

The Florida Senate appears ready to approve the far-reaching bill, but so far Republicans in control of the House appear reluctant to go that far in shaking up the agency that has come under fire for suspicious inmate deaths and poor conditions.

Sen. Greg Evers, a north Florida Republican who personally visited prisons and brought in employees to testify to legislators about corruption problems in the Department of Corrections, told his fellow senators Tuesday that creating an independent commission is the “heart” of a bill that could be approved as soon as next week.

Sen. Rob Bradley, a former assistant prosecutor and main proponent of creating the commission, said a long line of scandals and the arrival and departure of several agency heads had made past promises of reform “ring a bit hollow.”

“There is a trust gap quite frankly between the legislative and the executive at this point in time that I think requires a level of oversight,” said Bradley, a Republican from Fleming Island.

Florida’s prison system is one of the nation’s largest and houses roughly 100,000 inmates. But increases in the use of force against inmates, as well as allegations about cover-ups of questionable inmate deaths have tarnished the agency.

Randall Jordan-Aparo, for example, died at the Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010. He was reportedly gassed while in a confinement cell. Darren Rainey, a mentally ill prisoner, died at Dade Correctional in 2012 after being punished with a shower so hot that his skin separated from his body.

Scott brought in a new department secretary, Julie Jones, to take over late last year. Jones has told legislators that millions in taxpayer money is needed to boost staffing and repair prisons. But Jones also pushed for a new confidentiality policy for internal investigators responsible for rooting out corruption. The move came after a Senate panel grilled the inspector general of the department.

The Senate bill (SB 7020) would remove the governor’s sole power to appoint the department secretary and instead have the agency head report to Scott and the three other elected officials who make up the state Cabinet. The new, nine-member commission would be allowed to conduct investigations, including being able to take sworn testimony and subpoena witnesses.

A House panel on Tuesday endorsed a bill dealing with the prison system, but it only makes a few changes to existing law and it does not include the commission. Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and chairman of the House Criminal Justice subcommittee, said there are “valid reasons” to create an independent commission but he said it must have the “proper focus” and he doesn’t want to create more “bureaucracy.”

Trujillo said there may be other ways to provide oversight and that the House is open to amending its proposal over the next few weeks.