Prison Reforms Scuttled as Lawmakers Head Home

Prison Bars
Posted at 7:47 AM, Apr 29, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-29 09:33:09-04

TALLAHASSEE, FL (THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA)A push to reform the state's embattled prisons agency was one of the casualties of the House's early termination of the legislative session Tuesday, but Senate leaders aren't dropping the issue.

Senate President Andy Gardiner said his chamber won't take up a House prisons measure because it lacks an oversight commission included in a Senate plan (SB 7020). But Gardiner said he will dispatch his own committee to investigate problems in the corrections system that prompted lawmakers to propose the overhaul.

"We will put our corrections committee on the road within a couple of weeks and they will go and do their own investigations. I can subpoena people. We're not done with that," Gardiner, R-Orlando, told reporters late Tuesday afternoon. "It's unfortunate that the House did what they did. Usually these last three days is when you're negotiating. They just walked away."

Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, had been in talks with House leaders about the prison reforms as late as Tuesday morning. The House measure, passed last week, lacked the Senate's proposed independent, governor-appointed commission that would have taken over investigations of prison wrongdoing now handled by the Department of Corrections' inspector general.

The House had floated a compromise that would have created a joint select committee to oversee the prisons. But House Speaker Steve Crisafulli's decision to shut down his chamber three days before the scheduled end of the session put an end to prison-reform talks.

"We're not taking up the House bill. There's no oversight to it. The agreement that we had for oversight did not come through. So at this point that bill is dead," said Evers, whose district includes three prisons and who made several surprise visits to institutions throughout the state.

Lawmakers began exploring the prison overhaul in response to widespread reports about problems and abuse in the corrections system. Those reports have included allegations about cover-ups involving inmate deaths, complaints from inspectors who say they faced retaliation for exposing cover-ups and complaints from guards and others about a culture of intimidation against whistleblowers.

Earlier this month, an FBI investigation resulted in the arrest of two prison guards and one former prison worker who were allegedly members of the Ku Klux Klan. They were accused of plotting to kill an ex-inmate after he was released from a rural North Florida institution.

Evers said he believed lawmakers could have reached consensus on the measure if the House had remained in session longer.

"It's a disappointment to me for the people of the state of Florida. I felt reasonably sure we would have ironed out the differences. Absolutely," Evers said.

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