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House prepares Dept. of Corrections bill; Dems say it lacks oversight

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A record number of inmates — 346 — died last year in Florida prisons. Most were from natural causes but federal and state law enforcement agencies are investigating why there were so many deaths.

In recent legislative hearings, several prison guards testified under oath about the stressful conditions they work under. State Sen. Greg Evers is behind a bill that sets up an independent prison oversight board that reports directly to the Legislature.

The House is preparing a proposal that might be released Friday or early next week. It lacks an oversight commission.

Thursday, state Rep. Randolph Bracy, the Democrats’ point man on corrections, said the House leadership rejected the idea for fear of placing a “bad tag” on an underfunded agency.

The leaders of those committees (Judiciary and Criminal Justice) did not want it in there,” said Bracy, who added he supports an oversight commission. “(They didn’t think) the department should be penalized without a proper opportunity to be fully funded.”

The House budget addresses what state Rep. Darryl Rouson referred to as tension points in the prison system that may create an unsafe atmosphere for guards and inmates. The spending plan includes $15 million for fixed capital outlay, $16 million for an operating deficit and money to eliminate blind spots.

“We have heard part of the tension and pressure that has been on the Department of Corrections has been because of understaffing, because vacancies have not been able to be filled and maybe that has contributed to lack of safety for inmates as well as a lack of safety for correctional officers,” said Rouson. “We are putting some funds on the appropriation side where they have said there are issues . . . but we are going to be ever watchful.”

There are more than 100,000 inmates in DOC custody. Several employees have filed lawsuits alleging corruption.

“If anybody reads anything about corrections, there may be a case for cruel and unusual punishment,” said House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford.

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