Michael Crews may have the toughest job in state government. He's the secretary of the beleaguered Florida Department of Corrections, its sixth secretary in eight years. They don't seem to last long in the job.
But Crews is obviously trying. He has taken a reformer's hand to a dysfunctional and insular agency, firing staff, demanding accountability from contractors and calling in auditors in the wake of news reports of horrific abuse and a spike in inmate deaths.
Clearly, though, the mess at DOC is bigger than one reformer's best intentions can fix. It's time for action and attention from Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature.
When mentally ill inmates are boiled alive in a jury-rigged "punishment" shower for smearing feces in their cell; when inmates with cancer are punished with solitary confinement for complaining of pain; when the state locks up more residents, per capita, than Cuba? Something is deeply, profoundly wrong.
A policy research group at Florida State University is calling on the state to seize the moment. The same push for quality, accountability, professionalism and best practices that has been applied to schools, hospitals and other institutions is long overdue in the state's prisons, argues the FSU Project on Accountable Justice. After all, this is a state agency that costs taxpayers $2.3 billion a year.
Former state Republican Party Chairman Allison DeFoor heads the project.
"The problem is not a lack of good people. It's the structure," DeFoor said. "The design of this system dates back to a time when Florida was the smallest, poorest state in the country ... This is the last area of government that has had no accountability."
The group's most important recommendation may be to create a supervisory board with real oversight powers, one that can inspect, unannounced, every corner and closet of the state's prison system.
It's a tall order. But with 101,000 inmates, employing 15,000 people -- one in seven of all state employees -- the agency requires closer oversight.
"If 'Florida Corrections' were a county, it would be roughly the same population as Alachua County, and home to more people than 44 of the state's 67 counties," the report notes.
Equally important, the group calls for reforming the hiring, training and evaluation of guards. Should guards be allowed to serve out their entire career at a single institution, or should they be rotated and moved among multiple institutions, and required to continually educate and train? Is it appropriate for 19-year-olds to serve as guards, when other states limit hiring to those 21 and older? Could a centralized training academy bring common standards and expectations to the job?
Calls for reform of the Department of Corrections are not new. When Gov. Rick Scott came to office in early 2011, his transition team warned him that the agency was calcified from within.
"It is lacking leadership, vision and courage. Its organizational structure currently is confusing, diminishes accountability and is not cost-effective," the group wrote. "We found that a pattern of promoting from within has created an entrenched culture resistant to creativity and innovation."
But under Scott's administration, moves to fix prisons so far have focused on privatizing government functions with cost-cutting contracts. But cutting spending without imposing real oversight, without reforming sentencing guidelines and diverting nonviolent and mentally ill offenders? It has simply led to cruelty, as The Post's Beall has uncovered.
Eventually, nine of every 10 inmates in Florida prisons will return to the community, carrying with them the lessons learned while behind bars. For the safety of all, Florida must do better.