By Samantha Dupree and Audrey Carpenter
The changes the Florida prison system needs won’t come easily, despite the fact that most people across the political spectrum seem to agree that reform is needed.
On one side of the spectrum is Vikrant Reddy of the conservative Charles Koch institute. He argues that prison reform is necessary, as it will save taxpayers money while offering greater protections for the public.
Across the political aisle is Scott McCoy, an attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center. He’s just as firm that changes must come, but cites rehabilitation and the necessity of keeping inmates’ families together.
“Both conservatives and liberals want to accomplish the same goals,” McCoy explained.
Reddy agreed. “Both sides are using a different vocabulary but are getting to the same policy outcomes.”
However, that kind of agreement hasn’t come easily. Until recently, prison reform was a highly polarizing issue — no more so than during the 1980s and 1990s when this country entered into a tough-on-crime era.
Greg Newburn, the director of state policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, remembered that time for its divisiveness.
“It kind of became an arms race to be as tough as you can be, rather than any push back on that narrative,” Newburn said.
But the longer sentences championed by tough-on-crime legislation has now led to prison overcrowding and greatly increased correctional budgets.
The stiff prison sentences also mean some people convicted of lesser crimes who may have fared better in diversionary programs instead become habitual offenders.
Hopes for prison reform were raised in Florida when Gov. Rick Scott came into office in 2011. His transition team recommended restructuring the FDOC and providing independent oversight.
Those reforms, however, never came to pass.
In fact, according to Deborrah Brodsky, director of the Project on Accountable Justice, not much reform happened until 2014, when the news media got wind of a particularly horrible inmate death.
The death of Darren Rainey in Dade Correctional Institution didn’t come to light until news articles appeared in the Miami Herald in 2014. Rainey, who was mentally ill, had been placed in a scalding shower for two hours by officers as punishment, the media reported.
Although a recently released investigation by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office found that there was not enough credible evidence to charge anyone, the horrendous account of Rainey’s experience brought new calls for reform.
“It became apparent that the state couldn’t just be quiet,” Brodsky said. “There was a human being that set off another flurry of journalists looking into this issue as well and Rep. David Richardson taking on the system himself. But he was just one soldier and we needed an army.”
Since 2015, Richardson, a Miami-Beach Democrat, has made 80 to 85 unannounced visits to prisons. He has one-on-one interviews with almost 300 inmates during his visits. When possible, he interviews inmates in private away from guards or prison staff.
“I’ve spent close to 600 or 700 hours working on this project, whatever you read in the newspaper is the tip of what I’ve done,” Richardson said. “I don’t really talk about my work unless I think I need to communicate publicly to effect some change.”
Although Richardson has pushed for changes and even succeeded in having one of the state’s youthful offender prisons closed, the road to reform will be difficult.
Legislators have been hesitant to pass legislation regarding prisons. And, within the FDOC itself, the last decade has been rough.
Since 2006, seven FDOC secretaries have been appointed and each served fewer than three years in office. Gov. Rick Scott was elected in 2010 and appointed four FDOC secretaries over as many years.
The most recent is Secretary Julie Jones, who was appointed in January 2015. She is the first woman to ever lead the FDOC and was a veteran public-safety administrator.