Friday, January 18, 2008

Public duty and honest government

Our Opinion

It really is remarkable what Department of Corrections Secretary Jim McDonough has accomplished in less than two years as Florida's prison chief.

Appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush in February 2006, the decorated retired Army colonel inherited a department wracked by scandal, corruption and incompetence that reached its highest levels. McDonough's predecessor, James Crosby, went to prison for taking kickbacks from contractors, and he was accused of much more.

The malfeasance didn't stop there, either. DOC officials were indicted or fired for a long list of misdeeds - including public brawls, handing out fake department IDs to friends and family, using and distributing steroids, theft, wanton inmate beatings, and taking payoffs totalling more than $1 million from hundreds of inmates' families to facilitate transfers to more desirable prisons.

There was a culture of corruption that permeated the agency, and it started at the top.

Using hard-nosed, by-the-book management tactics, McDonough waged what he often called a "culture war" to try and clean up the DOC. The casualties of that war were dozens of corrupt or incompetent prison officials, including wardens and assistant wardens. As McDonough cleaned house, though, he never forgot to praise the vast majority of DOC's employees for being decent and hard-working credits to the department.

That, however, didn't stop him from occasionally ruffling their feathers as well, by instituting loyalty oaths, random drug tests and minimum physical fitness requirements.

McDonough has submitted his resignation, effective at month's end. He is being replaced by Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Walter McNeil, a former Tallahassee police chief.

The people of Florida should be grateful to McDonough, who served as drug policy adviser under Bush before moving to DOC. That he was able to take the reins of the state's largest agency - with 95,000 inmates, 150,000 probationers, 28,000 employees and a $2.2 billion budget - at such a tumultuous time and bring about such needed a change in culture in such a short time is a testament to the man's commitment to public duty and honest government.

Here in Marion County, the imprint McDonough leaves on DOC will undoubtedly be felt. With three major prisons - Marion Correctional Institution, Lowell Correctional Institution, and the Lowell Annex and associated work camps - our community is home to more than 4,000 inmates and nearly 1,000 DOC employees. Lowell Correctional and Lowell Annex, incidentally, comprise the largest women's correctional facility in the South.

McDonough's legacy is a rehabilitated DOC -- one in which the people of Florida can once again have confidence and pride. It's a remarkable legacy, indeed, considering he accomplished the seemingly impossible in less than two years.

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