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State investigates prisoner transfers

Published October 5, 2007

TALLAHASSEE — Suspicious that cash and favors might influence transfers of inmates between prisons, Corrections Secretary James McDonough has been investigating his own employees since July, but so
far has found no wrongdoing.

   Nine employees at corrections headquarters in Tallahassee, whose jobs involve classifying inmates or approving transfers, were sent home for all or part of a workday while their computers were examined. McDonough said the investigation is not over.

   "What I don’t want is outsiders trying to influence the system," McDonough said.

   McDonough confirmed the existence of the investigation when asked by the St. Petersburg Times. The inquiry was first reported Thursday on the Times’ Web site,

   Florida’s prison system, with 93,000 inmates, is equivalent to a medium-sized city. On a typical day, 2,000 inmates are moved from one prison to another, while thousands more wait for their transfer requests to be processed by the prison bureaucracy.

   Inmates want to be moved to a prison closer to relatives, or to be near a sick family member or in a place considered more lenient. To qualify for transfer inmates must have clean disciplinary records and have been at their current facility for at least a year.

   McDonough cited two prisons that were especially popular with inmates seeking a new home.

   They are Wakulla Correctional Institution, south of Tallahassee, a faith- and character-based prison, and a private prison in South Bay in Palm Beach County near Lake Okeechobee, which has a distinction state-run prisons lack: central air conditioning. (Some state prisons have air conditioning in portions of the facility.)

   "That’s a big draw. I get a lot of requests like that," McDonough said. "I try endlessly to make sure there’s no manipulation of the system."

   McDonough said the investigation began in July when an investigator monitoring a telephone conversation overheard a person telling the inmate that "I can get you moved." McDonough declined to identify the prison.

   The inquiry, which is looking at transfers as far back July 2006, is conducted by the Corrections Department Office of Inspector General, headed by Paul Decker.

   McDonough said the review turned up the names of an attorney and a former corrections department classification employee, who sometimes assisted inmates with arranging transfers, a practice that officials say is not uncommon in the prison system.

   "There’s nothing illegal about that business, and to some degree, that business would be no business of mine, unless it began to create unfairness in the system," McDonough said. "I want to make sure the system is fair and it is equitably applied to all.

   McDonough, a retired U.S. Army colonel who has seen action in three wars, was appointed head of Florida’s prison system by former Gov. Jeb Bush in February 2006 after a scandal engulfed the previous prison boss, James Crosby.

   McDonough, the most prominent agency head in the Bush admistration to be retained by Gov. Charlie Crist, served notice that he would no longer accept a corrections culture that he said overly tolerant of brutality and ineptitude.

   He emphasized that he would keep monitoring his employees for evidence of ethical lapses.

   "I’m going to look at this for a long time," McDonough said. "I want to stop any undue influence within the system — if there is any."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.