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Florida legislators, judges, state attorneys and public defenders will be able to make surprise inspections of juvenile detention lockups and residential programs under a bill that passed the Senate and was sent to the governor Wednesday.
The bill, HB 361, sponsored by Democrat Reps. David Richardson of Miami Beach and Cynthia Stafford of Miami and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is patterned after an existing law that allows state officials to make unannounced visits at state prisons but limits the visits to between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. It passed unanimously in both chambers.
In the last three years, Richardson, a retired forensic auditor, has been on a personal crusade to monitor and inspect Florida’s troubled prisons system. He has made more than 100 visits to state prisons, starting with the youthful offender programs, and to both privately run and public prisons. His efforts have produced results.
After he had made a few visits in 2015, the Miami Herald published an article about young inmates beaten and raped in a prison broomstick ritual at Lancaster Correctional Institution.
“I read that and thought, I couldn’t believe this could be true here in the state of Florida,’’ Richardson recalled Wednesday. He said he decided to take it on like a project, as he would for an audit client, and began investigating, He concluded the Lancaster prison was not appropriate for youthful offenders.
“This is the wrong facility for these kids,’’ he recalled. “They were being kept in these old-style dormitories with a lot of little rooms and no cameras. There were these beautiful oak trees on the campus but the trees were so big, the kids could literally get behind the trees and beat one another and you wouldn’t see them and there were no video cameras in the fields.”
He reported his findings to Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones and, within six months, she had transferred the youthful offenders from Lancaster and began using it to house more senior inmates.
Next, Richardson discovered abusive behavior by correctional officers at Sumter Correctional but realized that the staff knew which inmates he had spoken to, so he didn’t report his findings. He didn’t trust there wouldn’t be retribution if he complained.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done was to leave that facility and not say anything, but they knew who I had spoken to,’’ he said.
Over time, Richardson developed a technique to make it easier for inmates to speak to him confidentially without fear of being targeted by corrections staff.
In addition to persuading Jones to make management changes at Sumter, Richardson uncovered that the contracts the department has with private work-release contractors had been “fudged” to benefit the private providers. Although he alerted the budget staff in the House last year and this year, lawmakers “did nothing about it last year and they’re doing nothing about it this year.”
After the Herald published Fight Club, a six-part series detailing an array of failures within the state’s long-troubled juvenile justice system, Richardson, Stafford and several other lawmakers toured the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center on Oct. 18. They proclaimed it a disgrace.
Lawmakers said they observed mold, mildew, seeping toilet water, broken showers and confinement areas without running water. In one building only three of the 10 showers worked, Richardson said at the time. Water from the wall behind the two toilets spilled out onto the floor, slowly making its way to the assembly area’s carpet as the youths came and went, compounding the mold and mildew problem. The building housed about 20 detainees.
“The media plays an important role in informing our work here,’’ Richardson said Wednesday. “If that [series] had not come out, I probably would not have gotten this law passed.”
Richardson, who is retiring from the Legislature this year to run for Congress, said he encourages other legislators to take advantage of the statutes.
“I really want to encourage my colleagues to use both statutes,’’ he said. “Imagine the impact we would have if we would get every legislator to just visit one prison a year.”
Brandes credited Richardson for changing the way the Legislature sees Florida prisons and said the bill will also allow legislators, through their unique role, to go into juvenile justice facilities to observe how they are working.
“We are not just the mouth of the people,’’ Brandes said. “We are the eyes and ears as well.”