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A Times Editorial

Corrections reform

The Department of Corrections seems to be in some serious trouble, and Corrections Secretary Michael Moore could help by changing the atmosphere.

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001


The Department of Corrections seems to be in some serious trouble, and Corrections Secretary Michael Moore could help by changing the atmosphere.

If only a fraction of the allegations emerging from within the Department of Corrections are true, it is a deeply troubled agency in dire need of reform. Yet Corrections Secretary Michael Moore, who is responsible for ensuring professional standards within the department, dismisses eyewitness accounts of inmate abuse provided by employees within the system. Failing to respond to such credible evidence of abuse reflects badly on Moore, and on the man who appointed him, Gov. Jeb Bush.

In the two years Moore has been on the job, some of the most damaging criticism of his department has come from within. Most recently, diaries of Capt. Willie Hogan, released to the Times before he died, substantiated many of the same charges fueling a pending murder trial, class-action lawsuits and other continuing investigations. While Moore has gotten away with dismissing outside critics, the mounting chorus of complaints from his own officers cannot be so easily ignored. Hogan's diaries describe a veteran officer with a spotless record, frustrated at his powerlessness to stop inmate beatings and to discipline abusive guards at the Lancaster Correctional Institution for youthful offenders. His entries show a department-wide climate in which retaliation is common against officers who refuse to participate in cover-ups of the abuse.

Consider these developments:

Class-action lawsuits originally joined by more than 100 officers alleging harassment and discrimination.

Continuing investigations of inmate abuse and officer retaliation at the North Florida Corrections Center, and allegations of discrimination at the Tomoka and Lowell prisons.

The upcoming trial of eight officers on charges related to the beating death of Florida State Prison inmate Frank Valdes, including second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit aggravated battery, official misconduct, evidence tampering and falsifying reports.

Evidence of systematic brutalization in a Florida State Prison punishment area called X-wing.

A legislative audit showing sharply increased inmate-on-inmate violence and more assaults against guards over the course of a year.

A recruitment and retention problem, along with a number of corrections personnel found to have criminal records of their own.

Even though these problems did not start on Moore's watch, they all have been exacerbated by the atmosphere of secretiveness and defensiveness he has engendered. He has forbidden officers to speak with the press, kept lawmakers in the dark and recommended eliminating the legislature's prison watchdog committees. After Valdes' death, he directed guards to videotape incidents of force, then exempted instances in which guards use chemical sprays. He has accused the press of trying to make him look bad just as he blamed political enemies in South Carolina, where he headed the prison system before coming to Florida, of using allegations of racial discrimination to hurt him. There, he even went so far as to search inmates' mail and bar employees from taking notes in meetings.

Rather than stonewalling, Moore should invite objective scrutiny of his department from outside agencies, and the governor should hold him accountable for following the resulting recommendations. Moore should make it clear that guards will face severe punishment if they are found guilty of inmate abuse or racial discrimination against fellow officers. And he should build on initial efforts to strengthen the in-house investigation system for abuse allegations and redressing grievances. Moore's history -- of which Bush was fully aware before appointing him -- includes creating a marginally more open and accountable system in Texas and orchestrating a crackdown in South Carolina. Since Moore has shown he can do both, Bush should insist that he institute the Texas model in Florida.

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