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Scott recommends prison budget without money for investigations into inmate deaths

Rick Scott@jknipebrown and @MaryEllenKlas

After years of slashing funding for Florida’s state prison system, Gov. Rick Scott released a proposed budget Wednesday that would inject $51.2 million in new spending into the troubled agency but fails to provide any new resources to investigate inmate deaths – which last year reached a record high.

The governor, who has said little about allegations of corruption, inmate abuse and the high number of inmate deaths, would allocate $17.5 million to fill staff vacancies, which falls far short of the 654 that his new corrections secretary, Julie Jones, requested in her budget proposal. Scott also provided no new money to boost the salaries of corrections officers, who have not received raises in six years.

Jones and advocates for prison reform say raising salaries is key to retaining and recruiting quality corrections officers. The use of force has almost doubled among corrections officers in the past five years and critics say the staffing shortages have created dangerous conditions for both prison staff and inmates.

“We need 654 more boots on the ground,’’ said Sen. Greg Evers, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which on Monday holds its third hearing on prison reform. Evers, R-Crestview, surprised officials at Jefferson Correctional Institution and Suwannee Correctional last week when he and his staff conducted unannounced inspections and found dangerously low staffing levels, as well has facilities is dangerous disrepair.

Jones told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week that she needed additional staff at the agency because “staffing is key to lowering the temperature”  in these facilities.

“The staffing deficiencies have hampered our ability to operate at peak efficiency,’’ she said.

The governor’s proposal includes $15 million to rebuild aging prison infrastructure and $1.7 million to add security cameras with audio capabilities. State prison cameras, most of them outdated, do not have audio. The equipment is key to monitoring the prison culture, which has long been criticized for covering up inmate abuse.

The improvements, Scott said, will “enhance DOC efforts at further creating a culture of safety and reform, while holding those accountable who fail to live up to the standards that so many corrections officers honor.’’

Scott also is asking lawmakers for a $7.9 million increase for prison healthcare, to be paid to two private prison vendors, Corizon and Wexford., which have been accused of medical neglect and poor treatment contributing to the record number of inmate deaths.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli would not commit to whether the House would support substantive “we are open to having that conversation to see what would make them more successful in their endeavors.”

Senate President Andy Gardiner, who has allowed the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to launch its own probe of prison conditions, said he is supportive of the effort.

Scott’s budget excluded $64 million that was requested by the state’s former chief law enforcement officer, Gerald Bailey, before he was suddenly fired just before Christmas.

Bailey, who claims that Scott’s staff inappropriately interfered with the independent agency, had asked for money to fund positions for 88 new agents to investigate FDOC deaths under a new agreement with the corrections department, which has 101,000 inmates.

Scott’s staff said they would work with lawmakers, FDLE and FDOC to determine what funding, if any, is necessary to investigate in-custody deaths.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa criticized the governor's prison budget, saying it doesn't go far enough to support the changes sought by Jones.

"He's not giving her the resources she needs to do what she was hired to do," she said. "To not give the FDLE sufficient funds
to investigate inmate deaths is abhorrent. This could be exposing the state to a lawsuit. It calls into question his commitment to this."

Joyner said that the governor's recommendation "puts the burden on the legislature to fund the programs and to change the culture."