After recent developments in Tallahassee, it might be necessary to classify The Shawshank Redemption as non-fiction. In real life, of course, the corruption isn’t limited to one prison, and there is no Andy Dufresne to make us hopeful.
It began in January 2002 when Gov. Jeb Bush appointed James V. Crosby Jr. as Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC). At the time, Bush said, “I am confident he will serve the citizens of Florida well.” Crosby was scheduled to start his new job – as well as the reception of his six-figure salary – on Jan. 7, 2003.
Just six months after Crosby assumed the post, the Florida Legislature approved $66 million for Crosby to build prison capacity for thousands of new prisoners. This need for new housing was due to an increase in drug convictions that surpassed the estimates of the Criminal Justice Estimating Conference. Bush and Crosby failed to interpret a reason for this surplus, but they did seem confident in what didn’t cause it. It certainly couldn’t have Bush’s cut of treatment programs that allowed those convicted of drug-related offenses to avoid imprisonment and receive help.
The need for the funds was apparently so dire that the Florida Legislature approved the money for Crosby with no requirement of competitive bidding. After all, what better recipe is there for ethical conduct and fairness than unaccountability and secrecy?
Only two years later, Crosby was embroiled in scandal: Eight FDOC employees had been charged with various crimes, a grand theft investigation of the Department was expanding and search warrants allowing the confiscation of vehicles owned by six Department employees had been granted. The list of malfeasance goes on, but 6 months ago Bush was still standing by his man. In October 2005, he described Crosby as “a good person, a good leader,” and told him to not let “the ‘blanks’ get you down.”
But in an amazing change of strategy, Bush recently decided to become one of those wretched “blanks.” James Crosby was abruptly fired on Friday.
In an effort to come across as motivated to clean up a department entangled in scandal, Bush appointed Jim McDonough as interim Secretary of the FDOC. McDonough did not rise through the ranks of the correctional system as Crosby did. Therefore, the hope seems to be that McDonough will be a straight shooter, untarnished by the corruption that is the very heart of the FDOC.
It is very naÃ¯ve to think a department guilty of so much corruption and outright cruelty merely needs a change of human resources to eviscerate the fraudulence that is at its heart. Unfortunately, that still seems to be the view taken by the government of Florida. In a persistent commitment to secrecy, Gov. Bush has not, and probably will not, explain the reasons for his sudden change of heart regarding Crosby. It could be that the past scandals finally became too much for Bush to ignore.
The straw that may have broke the camel’s back for Bush is a decision by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida passed down Feb. 8. The court permitted 10 inmates at Florida State Prison in Starke who were severely burned with chemical agents to amend a civil rights action against Crosby and 27 other FDOC employees. The action cites abuse of mentally ill and asthmatic prisoners via the overuse of chemical agents, which led to severe burns and psychological distress.
In a press release issued by Florida Institutional Legal Services, which is joined by Holland and Knight, LLP, and the Florida Justice Institute as representation for plaintiffs in the case, it is stated, “Plaintiffs seek an injunction to change the sadistic policies of the FDOC at the Florida State Prison and protect them from Defendants’ rampant abuse of inmates with chemical agents.”
Apparently the torture of the mentally incompetent with searing chemical agents is enough to remove an appointed government employee. Importing steroids, embezzlement and other charges that have been made against the FDOC in Crosby’s tenure are not.
This problem is not addressed by replacing the human element in the FDOC. The issue, in fact, rears its head in all forms of government action. It is giving the permission for government to operate in secrecy that enables these intolerable abuses. This system is still firmly in place. When announcing the firing of Crosby, Bush said, “I can’t speak of the details, but today was the appropriate time that we were given the chance to take action.”
Well, why can’t he speak of the details? Isn’t the public entitled to know the details? Are the human resources affairs of the Department of Corrections a matter of national security?
Like any organization or person, governments are responsible for their acts. If a government wishes to engage in secrecy regarding important matters and transcend the accountability of the voters who elect it, the privilege to do so must be earned. Neither the federal government nor the government of Florida has earned the right to operate in the dark. No matter how unsafe it makes Americans feel, limited government power and full disclosure must be demanded. If it is not, the specter of James Crosbys to come will always be with us.
Jordan Capobianco is a senior majoring in English literature.