Wednesday, June 20, 2007

McDonough assesses progress in cleaning up prisons' problems

Posted on Tue, Jun. 19, 2007

Florida's prisons have been rid of organized corruption by officials trying to game the system, Corrections Secretary James McDonough said Tuesday.

McDonough told The Associated Press there may still be intermittent wrongdoing by individual employees, but that institutionalized lawlessness he brought in to clean up has been weeded out. Former Gov. Jeb Bush appointed McDonough 16 months ago after his predecessor, James Crosby, was indicted.

Crosby and a top lieutenant are in federal prison after being convicted of accepting bribes in a kickback scheme.

"I think he somehow convinced himself he was above it, that he was untouchable and, of course, he was not," McDonough said.

McDonough said it was very difficult at first, beginning a job in an office cordoned off with police tape as a crime area and not knowing any of the agency's employees.

"You don't know who to trust," said McDonough, who took the job despite having no background in prison management.

After a 27-year Army career as an infantry officer with stops in Vietnam, Bosnia and Rwanda, the retired colonel served several years as Florida's drug czar before being picked by Bush to fix the state's scandal-ridden prison system.

And he knows there is still resistance to some of his proposed changes.

"Even in normal times, organizations are resistant to change," said McDonough.

He created a stir among many of his officers earlier this year when he announced a plan aimed at getting many of the agency's 27,000 employees to get into better physical condition by 2009 when they'll be asked to prove they're fit enough to keep their jobs.

Officers who fail the test will have six months in a remedial program to reach the minimum goals before being moved to another, less strenuous job in the department if one is available.

Just a month after taking charge in February 2006, McDonough fired the warden in charge of Florida State Prison where the state conducts executions and the No. 2 official at the prison system's medical center along with seven other top officials.

Shortly after that he yanked a $645 million prison health care contract signed in 2006 that he claimed the state was losing money on.

And he cleaned house at the Hendry Correctional Institution after learning an inmate had been beaten and choked by guards in March. Eight of the 13 prison employees fired from the medium and minimum security prison in the Everglades also face criminal charges. The previous warden and an assistant warden resigned, and three others were reassigned.

A West Point graduate, McDonough's also trying to restore confidence in the state's method of executing its worst offenders following a botched execution shortly before he was named secretary in February 2006.

McDonough said the condemned inmates still deserve a "humane and dignified" death.

He still faces turnover issues, particularly in South Florida, and wants to find a better way to treat mentally ill people who are in the system.

"It's really a major social issue," McDonough said. "Just think how bleak it is in prison."

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