What’s Up, DOC? Corrections Dept. Situation Goes from Bad to Worse to “OMG! Really?”

Florida’s Department of Corrections (DOC) is a huge agency that has historically had a lot of problems on its very best day. Recent events culminating in (pictured) DOC Secretary Ed Buss’s sudden resignation indicate that efforts to bring sweeping changes have invited a huge calamity to unfold, one that was not only easily predictable, but was also visible even to the most optically challenged, like a slo-mo train wreck.

Between an ideologically arrogant legislature and governor, and the Governor’s hand-picked golden boy from Indiana, Edwin Buss, arrogantly determined to transform Florida corrections into his Indiana-model in short order, DOC was a big target. Enough systemic wrenching has occurred at DOC in the last 7 months to send any organization into apoplexy. That no one in authority had either the wisdom or the courage to scream “Stop!” is indicative of the state of administrative, legislative and political incompetency now afflicting Florida’s government.

Besides its history of scandals, the DOC entered 2011 with a huge prison population with skyrocketing costs due to capital outlays on new prison construction. Here in Lowell, the women’s prison is undergoing expansion to make it the largest women’s prison in the USA. All would agree that the trajectory was unsustainable, but that’s where agreement would largely end.

As noted in a post last December, neither the new Governor nor the legislature had the common sense to understand and deal with the DOC budget increases intelligently. Confronting mandatory minimum sentencing requirements – those “tough on crime” laws – which tie the hands of judges and condemn certain criminal activities more harshly and disproportionately, would have been a logical step to ensure that law breakers weren’t imprisoned unduly that really didn’t need to be there.

Changing those laws is the job of the legislature, but reform advocates including Grover Norquist were ignored as their efforts died, and died, and died while lesser measures got extolled. There was also no encouragement from the Governor’s office to change sentencing laws despite the transition team’s recommendation.

“I’m not interested in reducing sentencing. I think that the sentencing guidelines are correct,” Scott said.

All Republican eyes in Tallahassee fixated on how to cut spending while also privatizing services so that for-profit entities (campaign donors) could benefit from taxpayer dollars. Changing sentencing laws neither cut spending nor benefited corporate donors. In fact, changing such laws might decrease the number of prisoners (egad!) and harm the business interests of for-profit prison operators.

Instead of doing the smart thing, Republicans did the ideological thing. They privatized. This disastrous move was highlighted as one of the costliest budget bungles of the 2011 legislative session. The linked post details the prison operator campaign contributions, their cherry-picking of inmates, the dismal track record of privatized prisons, etc.

A huge swath of facilities in the southern part of the state were to be privatized and fast. Money needed to be saved and there was no time to lose. Privatization proponents had wanted every DOC facility in Florida privatized, but there was enough outcry to limit the scope and pace. Privatization in the region was to include prison health services and probation services, too, no matter how unwise.

Enter Edwin Buss, a courted talent who earned a solid reputation for reforming the Indiana prison system. He seemed like the perfect candidate to turn around Florida’s DOC. And he might have been the right guy, might have been. On Wednesday, he resigned suddenly when tensions with the Scott people climaxed after just 8 months on the job.

Ed Buss thought he was hired to be a reformer, and also thought that the Scott administration wanted him to be a reformer and would support him in his effort. Not so.

Clearly Buss was pushing hard, dishing out sweeping new rules and setting up new expectations from staff, dumping some DOC big shots and bringing in his own people from Indiana with fat paychecks. Like Dan Ronay, Buss’s deputy secretary and chief of staff who noted:

“Our team found that DOC is broken,” the report said. “It is lacking leadership, vision and courage. … We found that a pattern of promoting from within has created an entrenched culture resistant to creativity and innovation.” Ronay said he read the report six times. In his first few weeks on the job, he fired more than 30 people and began building Buss’ team by hiring and promoting others from within, while also raiding the Indiana system.

Do you think that attitude and approach might be demoralizing to existing DOC staff who have already had to endure plenty from a governor and legislature that has made its dislike of state employees unequivocally clear?

Buss also had to manage the prison privatization that he had not advocated but got stuck with implementing nonetheless, on top of the changes he was already implementing.

“I think in terms of private prisons, this is as far as Florida should go,” Corrections Secretary Ed Buss said in an interview. “This wasn’t my decision, this wasn’t Gov. Scott’s decision, this was the Legislature’s decision.”

True, it wasn’t Scott’s decision, but Scott supported it enthusiastically. Buss tried to put his best foot forward while at the same time making it clear that the key to reform was not privatization but reducing recidivism, an emphasis mentioned in the legislation:

“It takes three to five years to get any meaningful data on recidivism,” Buss says. “I wouldn’t recommend any future private prisons until we get the data and we see if it does actually work.”

Buss was trying to stay on the same page as the administration on the privatization nonsense, but he kept wandering off the reservation with the ‘reduce recidivism’ talk. That is always a costly enterprise that for-profit prison operators are likely loathe to implement since there was certainly no new money for such programs. One can easily imagine the Scott administration’s concern (and legislative leaders) about Buss not playing ball on the privatization scheme the way they wanted.

A series of recent problems stoked the final conflagration; contracts DOC independently sought and concluded without Scott administration approvals, followed by contracts being severed and deals up-ended. There were other significant distractions like the end of a prison health watchdog agency and the embarrassing revelation that the prison privatization scheme would cost the state $25 million in separation expenses to DOC staff, a huge sum that exceeded the planned budget savings for this year, something that legislators were advised about by Buss’s people and which legislators ignored.

Buss realized that Scott and his people couldn’t be trusted to cover his back, and frankly they may be willing to stick a knife in it for his failure to read from the Scott script.

Buss also likely realized that the happy talk honeymoon with Scott had ended and that they had incompatible visions for DOC. Scott’s view was narrowly ideological and political; privatize/profitize DOC and cut costs. Buss had a professional assessment; change sentencing, reduce recidivism, and professionalize the organization. No real common ground existed between them.

For Scott, DOC was a political instrument to further his ideological transformation of state government. For Buss, DOC was an ineffective, manipulated bureaucracy that needed strong leadership to head in a positive, new direction. Charged to move quickly to turn DOC around, Buss and his people laid a heavy hand on DOC. While likely needed, the intensity and timing were too much and too fast, particularly with the massive privatization dumped in their laps. Still, losing Buss is real setback.

Now DOC is in even worse shape, even more beleaguered, and likely facing a whole new round of management changes. And there is still the largest prison privatization ever – ever! – to be accomplished. This whole mess indicates the staggering height of incompetence being passed off as governance in the State of Florida.

For folks who are always chanting “government needs to be run like a business,” the experience of DOC shows that these Republican clowns couldn’t run a lemonade stand.