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Union challenges corrections’ cutback on home visits to offenders

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012 by Dara Kam

State corrections officials did not go through the proper process when they stopped most home visits with criminals on probation or community control, the union representing corrections workers is alleging in a complaint filed today.

Lawyers for the Teamsters, which represents prison guards and probation and community control workers, are accusing Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker and his staff of changing the number of visits without seeking a rule change, they argued in an administrative complaint filed today.

Union representatives say the new policy is unsafe and that probation officers have found guns, drugs and other illegal activity when visiting offenders’ homes.

“We know that home visits are critical to keeping our citizens safe, whether it’s in their home, at work or at school. The safety of our citizens is paramount,” Teamsters lobbyist Ron Silver said in a statement.

Tucker and his staff late last month ordered probation and community control officers to stop conducting face-to-face visits with most offenders in part to deal with a $79 million budget deficit.

Tucker’s order effectively changed the rules regarding offender supervision but he did not go through the rule-making process, the complaint argued.

And even if he had gone through the rule-making process, the new policy would still be illegal, Teamsters lawyer Holly Van Horsten said Tuesday, because it does not comply with what Florida law requires regarding field visits. They’re asking the administrative law judge to order the department to go back to the old visit schedule.

DOC officials would not respond to the complaint but said they were continuing to visit sex offenders and offenders on community control.

And offenders are still required to meet with their probation officers in the office, department spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Racleff said in an e-mail.

But “other measures will be taken to verify the inmate residence and employment, without having to visit their residence,” Racleff said.

And supervisors can order face-to-face visits with probationers considered a threat to public safety or suspected of violating their probation, DOC spokeswoman Ann Howard said.

“If there’s an order from the court that the person be drug-tested, we’ll continue to do that. Anything the court has ordered, we’re going to continue,” Howard said. “The idea of compromising safety is a bad one. We’re not going to do that.”

Probation and community control officers will be “doing less driving” to save money, Howard said.

“But probationers need to know they will continue to be monitored. We’re not compromising public safety,” she said.

More reshuffling at corrections – new deputy and Will Kendrick now legislative affairs director

Thursday, November 10th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker has brought in one of his former colleagues from the Department of Law Enforcement as his deputy secretary and hired a former lawmaker as his legislative liaison, according to an internal memo distributed by Tucker’s staff.

Tucker, a top staffer at FDLE before being tapped by Gov. Rick Scott to head the agency after Scott ousted former secretary Ed Buss, has hired Michael Crews as his deputy secretary. Crews, whose resume includes stints as a correctional officer and a probation officer, most recently served as FDLE’s “professionalism program director,” according to the memo.

And Tucker also hired former state representative Will Kendrick. A familiar face at legislative criminal justice committee meetings, Kendrick had been working in the same capacity for the Florida Parole Commission. Kendrick replaces Allen Mortham, son of former secretary of state Sandy Mortham, who “resigned to pursue other opportunities,” according to Tucker’s memo.

Tucker’s been operating sans deputy since the exodus last month of Dan Ronay, Buss’s second-in-command.

UPDATE: Appeals court orders ousted prisons chief to give deposition in privatization lawsuit

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Gov. Rick Scott has appealed the appellate ruling ordering former DOC Secretary Ed Buss to give a deposition in the prison privatization lawsuit. Scott’s lawyers are asking that the full First District Court of Appeals reconsider yesterday’s three-judge panel’s ruling.
Scott spokesman Lane Wright said the governor’s office is appealing the decision about the deposition on principle because state law gives high-ranking officials immunity from testifying in lawsuits.
“It’s not about this specific case. It’s about all cases. The doctrine protecting high-ranking officials from being deposed is a bedrock principle of Florida law. It’s about the principle of the thing,” Wright said.

An appeals court ordered former Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss, ousted by Gov. Rick Scott last month, to testify in a lawsuit over prison privatization filed by the union that represents correctional officers.

The First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee had temporarily halted Buss’s deposition last week, overturning a lower court ruling ordering him to be deposed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which filed the lawsuit.

But yesterday the appellate court agreed that Buss must give his deposition. Scott’s administration tried to block Buss’s testimony because Florida law protects high-ranking officials from having to testify in most court cases.

On Sept. 15, Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford ordered Buss to give his deposition, agreeing with the union in her ruling that the former secretary is “reasonably likely to have unique discoverable knowledge of potentially relevant subject matter.”

Scott forced Buss to resign late last month citing “differences in philosophy and management styles arose which made the separation in the best interests of the state.” One of the reasons for Buss’s ouster was his apparently less-than-enthusiastic support of the privatization of the 30 prisons from Manatee County to Indian River County south to the Keys.

Lawmakers ordered all of the prisons in the 18-county region south of Polk County to the Florida Keys to be taken over by a private vendor in the budget passed this spring. The PBA is objecting that including the policy change in the must-pass spending plan is unconstitutional.

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Scott on Glades prison shut-down: Private sector, not government, creates jobs

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 by Dara Kam

Gov. Rick Scott appeared unapologetic for the shuttering of Glades Correctional Institution on Dec. 1 ordered by his administration in one of the state’s economically hardest-hit regions.

When asked about the decision to close the Belle Glade prison – revealed yesterday afternoon when Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker met with Palm Beach County lawmakers – Scott said his priority is making sure the state spends money wisely – even at the expense of the region’s economy.

At least 250 prison guards now employed at GCI will have to find jobs elsewhere within the prison system or try to get work from at one of the private prisons after the department hands over all prisons in an 18-county region south of Polk County to a private vendor on Jan. 1.

“I think the biggest factor should be how do you spend state tax dollars efficiently and do the job you’re expected to do,” Scott said when asked about the expected devastating effect of mothballing the prison on the region where unemployment in some areas is as high as 40 percent.

When pressed about the impact shutting GCI would have on the community, Scott said: “I think our job is to help build communities. But I personally don’t believe government creates these jobs. I believe government’s job is to watch how it spends its money, fulfill its purposes well but help build private sector jobs.”

Former DOC Secretary Ed Buss, ousted last month by Scott, had appeared amenable to keeping GCI open in another capacity, possibly to comply with a legislative mandate that the department create 800 transitional drug treatment beds for prisoners nearing release.

But Tucker, appointed by Scott late last month, said Wednesday that plan was scrapped because the legislature wanted more than one vendor to provide the step-down beds in more than one location.

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Corrections shake-up: Scott prisons chief quits after six months on the job

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss has resigned six months after going to work for Gov. Rick Scott.

Buss will be replaced by Ken Tucker, currently assistant director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Tucker will not be named as an interim secretary but will take on full leadership of the department, sources in Scott’s office said.

In a statement, Scott said “differences in philosophy and management styles arose which made the separation in the best interests of the state.”

Buss leaves as his agency undertakes the privatization of more than one-third of the state’s prisons in the region south of Ocala.

And his abrupt resignation comes after Scott’s office twice rebuked the former Indiana prisons chief over state contracts. Scott’s office this week forced out one of Buss’s hand-picked aides – Elizabeth “Betty” Gondles” after citing concerns about a possible conflict of interest with the privatization of the department’s health care services. Gondles’ $180,000, 10-month contract was terminated two months before it was scheduled to run out in October.

Last week, Scott’s office pulled requests for proposals from vendors bidding on health services for the state’s 100,000 inmates. Gondles, who oversaw the RFPs, is married to Jim Gondles, head of the American Correctional Association that accredits the facilities. The RFPs required that vendors pay for ACA membership and pay the organization to perform audits.

Also last week, Scott’s office canceled a contract Buss signed with MSNBC’s “Lockup” allowing a crew to film the reality show at a Panhandle prison. Scott’s aides said Buss hadn’t vetted the contract with them before signing it.

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