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John Florez: Corrections needs mirror to fix problems

Corrections — is that an oxymoron? Looks like Utah's Department of Corrections is focusing on the Daggett jail's failure to prevent prison escapes rather than examining how its own practices may have contributed to the problem.

Self-correction is what successful businesses do, constantly, if they want to stay in business. Government bureaucracies, on the other hand, when under fire, instinctively circle the wagons, start finger-pointing and come up with the same solution — more money. Corrections is no different.

Corrections seems to be veering from its legislative mandate to "protect the public through institutional care and confinement." Its current program, "to place inmates in the best possible environment to meet their needs," appears to be a change in philosophy. Past administrations held the protection of the public as their primary responsibility.

As a former assistant to a past director at corrections, I know employees have one of the most dangerous and awesome responsibilities society has given them — the public's safety. They must manage dangerous criminals, place them where public safety is assured, and manage the day-to-day safety in its institutions. Capping all that is the endless task of trying to juggle the elusive job of rehabilitation — overturning decades of anti-social behavior.

Corrections has launched an investigation of all the county jails that house state convicts. Rather than concurrently reviewing how its own classification and inmate placement practices may have precipitated the problem, it first assumes county sheriffs were not doing their job. The escape of two convicted murderers from a county jail ought to motivate the Legislature to ask the following questions: What is corrections' protocol for placing inmates in county jails? When did the practice change of allowing inmates convicted of first-degree murder to be placed in a county jail? Why were convicted first-degree murderers placed in a county jail without having their required "original hearing" to determine a parole date by the parole board? And, when was "good behavior" an overriding factor in placing first-degree murderers outside a secure prison?

Lawmakers need to scrutinize how effective corrections is in monitoring the county jails regarding compliance with their contracts. How, and how often, are jails inspected regarding security, and what corrective action is taken if deficiencies are found? And is there a timeline? In the Daggett case, apparently corrections conducted an inspection but focused primarily on fire safety issues.

However, the inspector did note that there were malfunctioning cameras and lack of manpower, which may have contributed to the escape. This raises the critical question of the due diligence of corrections in monitoring to assure jails are complying with their contracts. Once-a-year inspection is not enough. Not taking immediate corrective action where violations are found — especially where public safety is at stake — is inexcusable.

Overlooked are the victims. Corrections has a responsibility to victims and their right to be informed whenever there is a change in the status of their perpetrator. They should not also be victims of state neglect.

One of the most disturbing trends in corrections is its growing denial of public access to findings as it conducts reviews of problems in a system that is in dire need of fresh air. The public has a right to information, especially when it comes to safety and security.

Corrections officials keep seeing the major problem as prison overcrowding and the solution as more money. The problem is real. However, corrections must first conduct a self-analysis of how its practices contribute to the problem, and propose creative solutions including alternatives to incarceration. Until then, they should stop crying wolf.


Utah native John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations, has served as a juvenile probation officer, served on several national corrections boards and was appointed to the President's Commission on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net