Matthew T. Mangino
April 3, 2015
Last year, 35 inmates were executed nationwide. During that same period, 10 times as many inmates died in Florida’s prison system alone — by means other than lethal injection.
Unfortunately, deaths in prison are common. For Florida, a record 346 prisoners died while behind bars in 2014 — a dubious distinction.
Many of the deaths came to light through a Miami Herald series. The stories documented a pattern of inhumane treatment, abuse and unexplained inmate deaths. As a result, the Florida legislature began to look into the matter.
Several prison guards testified at legislative hearings about the stressful conditions they are forced to endure on a daily basis. According to National Public Radio, corrections officer Timothy Butler said staff shortages and a lack of communication with the administration have made the prisons unsafe for inmates and guards. “It’s to the point,” he said, “where that if I was to walk down on a compound, I feel scared ... I don’t even know where we have enough people on there to help.”
According to the Department of Justice-Bureau of Justice Statistics, 958 inmates died while in the custody of local jails in 2012. This was an eight percent increase from 2011 and marked the first annual increase in the number of jail deaths since 2009.
State prisons reported 3,351 deaths in 2012. The mortality rate increased two percent, from 260 deaths per 100,000 state prisoners in 2011 to 264 deaths per 100,000 prisoners in 2012.
Florida has the nation’s third-largest prison population with more than 100,000 men and women behind bars. Due to budget cuts totaling nearly a half-billion dollars conditions in Florida’s state prisons have been impacted by staff shortages, declining services to inmates and a deteriorating infrastructure. All of which create dangerous and often deadly conditions for inmates and a frightening work environment for staff.
Florida is not alone. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, America’s jails and prisons hold more than 2.4 million people. Those inmates are scattered among 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities and civil commitment centers.
As jails and prisons burst at the seams, it is evident the United States is not just leading the world in incarceration rates, but that men and women are dying in prison at an unprecedented rate. Florida is ground zero for prison-related deaths, but certainly not alone in the crisis.
Julie Jones, recently appointed Florida’s corrections secretary by Gov. Rick Scott, is the seventh head of the Department of Corrections in the last eight years. Jones believes the legislature and the media are making too much of the high number of inmate deaths.
“I would submit to you, if you look at the raw numbers, it tells you, ‘Oh my gosh, we have a problem,’’” she told NPR. “If you drill in, the actual stats don’t portray it’s a crisis.”
Last fall, her predecessor fired 32 guards in the wake of an investigation into inmate deaths. Former Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews dismissed the guards after an investigation of inmate deaths at four different prisons. All of them had been accused of criminal misconduct or wrongdoing in the inmates’ deaths.
In Florida, the average age of a prison inmate is about 33. Yet the mortality rate for inmates is more than half the mortality rate Floridians of all ages. This is an issue that demands more scrutiny, not just in Florida, but across the country.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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