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    Auditors hammer prison system

    About 48,000 offenders who are supposed to be under state supervision have absconded, state auditors say.

    By SHELBY OPPEL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


    TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's prison system came under a harsh spotlight in July 1999, when guards were implicated in the fatal beating of a death row inmate.

    Seventeen months later, state auditors have given the system a report card, and the news is largely grim:

    Of criminal offenders sentenced to probation as of August, 24 percent, or about 48,000 offenders, have escaped supervision.

    Inmate-on-inmate batteries are up 39 percent over last year, and inmate batteries on prison staff are up by 7 percent.

    The reorganization launched by Department of Corrections Secretary Michael W. Moore has faltered, creating fear and distrust among employees and failing to save taxpayer dollars.

    Moore was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in January 1999 and began the reorganization several months later. The report, required by state law, was conducted by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, an independent arm of the state Legislature.

    In his response to auditors, Moore said his efforts to centralize prison operations have saved money -- $32.9-million, he says -- despite budget cuts by state lawmakers that eliminated 1,200 jobs.

    "To compare where the department is now with where it was two years ago, by any yardstick, one would have to rate our efforts as both a fiscal and operational success," Moore wrote.

    In some areas, auditors agreed. For example, while more probationers are escaping supervision, fewer inmates are breaking out. Inmate escapes are down 73 percent, from 324 in 1994-95 to 87 in 1999-2000. All but five of the 87 were recaptured.

    Auditors found few problems with prison health care, and noted that Florida's inmate suicide rate -- 8.9 suicides per 100,000 inmates -- was among the nation's lowest. They also predicted long-term success for Moore's reorganization, but added that "efforts are needed to improve employee morale."

    Overall, however, the report found plenty of room for improvement in the system, which houses 71,233 inmates in 57 prisons and 71 other facilities. State lawmakers allocated nearly $1.7-million to the prison system in the 2000-01 budget.

    In addition to inmates, state corrections officials are responsible for thousands of convicted felons who have been sentenced to court-ordered supervision. Of the 203,466 offenders on probation as of August, 24 percent have absconded, auditors found.

    While more than half of the escapees had committed property theft, fraud or drug-related crimes, 260 had convictions for murder or manslaughter; 993, for sexual or lewd behavior; and 6,037, for "other violent crimes," the report said.

    "To protect the public safety and stop the increasing number of offenders from fleeing supervision, the department needs to take immediate corrective action," auditors wrote.

    Auditors also noted an increase in prison violence, suggesting it may be due to recent changes in state law that require inmates to stay in prison longer, giving them less incentive to behave. A shortage of work programs and other activities to keep inmates busy may also be to blame.

    As for Moore's efforts to reorganize the prison system, auditors concluded that he never had a formal plan or a vision shared with employees. Employees were kept too much in the dark about changes to their jobs and discouraged from asking questions.

    "The reorganization is likely to have a positive effect on long-term operations, but it is questionable whether the long-term effects on employee morale and performance will be positive," auditors wrote.

    The report, which will be given to legislative leaders, is available online at http://www.oppaga.state.fl.us.

    In October, a jury acquitted one of five former Florida State Prison guards implicated in the July 1999 death of inmate Frank Valdes. Four other guards charged in the death are expected to stand trial as early as February.

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