Responding to allegations of abuse and corruption in Florida’s prison system, the state Senate voted Wednesday to create an independent oversight commission with subpoena powers to investigate wrongdoing at the state Department of Corrections.
The bill, SB 2070, passed the Florida Senate 37-1 and creates the nine-member Florida Corrections Commission, which would have the power to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud and inmate abuse, as well as review budget proposals and make policy recommendations.
The proposal comes in the wake of months of reports about suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that its chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored inmate abuse.
In the last four years, the agency has seen massive budget cutbacks and four secretaries. Reported use-of-force incidents have nearly doubled in the past five years, inmates deaths have risen, and critics say understaffed prisons have spawned widespread abuse among prison guards working 12-hour shifts.
Seizing on the reports, Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, conducted surprise inspections at several prisons and pushed for the sweeping reforms. The oversight commission was championed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, "lost trust" in the ability of the $2 billion agency to police itself.
The Senate also began debate on its budget, which includes $6.9 million to pay for the oversight commission and $15 million to fill the long-held deficit in the prison budget.
"Members, this was your bill,’’ Evers told the Senate, before the near unanimous vote. Only Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, voted against it. "Each one of you have had input and I appreciate the support that you have given me in passage of this great bill."
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, commended Evers for legislation that provides "the key oversight necessary to implement critical programs to protect inmates from mistreatment, to strengthen the security of our prison system, and to keep Florida communities safe."
But the measure faces an uphill battle in the House, which has proposed a watered down prison bill that includes none of the added oversight, inspections or the independent commission. It also faces a potential challenge from Gov. Rick Scott, who has remained silent on the prison troubles as his agency secretary, Julie Jones, has blamed lack of funding and a few “disgruntled employees” for the allegations.