Talking with former Fla. Secretary of Prisons Edwin Buss
We spoke with Buss before he resigned about his big reform plans for Florida prisons
Editor's note: We interviewed Edwin Buss before he abruptly resigned from his position as Florida's Secretary of Prisons. Below is the feedback he gave us about his plans for the state Department of Corrections. If you could ask him a question now in light of what's happened since this interview, what would you ask him? Tell us in the comments below.
By Carol McKinley
Edwin Buss is known as a hard worker who has been doing double time on evenings and weekends since he was appointed. He is new to the job as Florida's Secretary of Prisons, having started Valentine's Day of this year.
In the last six months that he has been in charge, his family has been in Indiana where he led the prison department there. But his family has recently joined him in Florida, where he's challenged with the state prison system's tight budget constraints. Prisons statewide are closing, and others are may be privatized. Corrections1 caught up with Buss as he was touring a facility in the Everglades in Southern Florida.
C1: You've already banned smoking and porn in Florida prisons. And after just about six months, you're getting a reputation as a reformer. Is change important to you?
Buss: We know so much more about what works in prison now than we did years ago and the staff in Florida, from the COs to the wardens to the medical staff...they were ready for change. They were ready for reform. Many of the ideas, they've instituted. They are their ideas. I'm just listening and getting out of the way.
C1: In the last six months of being in charge, which of your ideas are you most proud of?
Buss: Everything from increasing education programs to innovative programs, like “Computers for Kids.” Inmates are refurbishing computers and they're donating them to kids. We've increased our faith and character-based units throughout the state. We've created veterans' units to work with our veterans who are incarcerated. And you would not believe the high population of veterans we have here who are incarcerated. We put them in units and honor them for what they've done for their country at the same time, holding them accountable for their actions.
C1: What do you think of the idea of special “veterans' courts” put in place to help them through the system?
Buss: If their criminal behavior happened because they served, and because of the traumatic events they experienced overseas, I think as a country we owe it to the veterans to make sure there are special courts to help them through the system.
C1: And what about other special processes like drug courts?
Buss: I truly believe they're the future because they give us the opportunity to give purposeful incarceration for these offenders and deal with them based on their needs.
C1: Were you ever a CO?
Buss: Oh absolutely. For thirteen years. I didn't take the traditional route to be warden. I stayed in the uniformed ranks because I thought I'd learn the most there.
C1: Now you're in administration. Was that your plan all along?
Buss: I wanted to make a bigger impact. I rose through the ranks as a Correctional Officer, Sergeant, Lieutenant Major and then Warden. I started out in one of the oldest prisons in the United States. Indiana State Prison was built in 1860, three years before Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.
C1: What advice do you have for new COs?
Buss: Be all you can be. Be proud of the work that you do. Corrections is one of the most honorable professions there is. What we know about people who are incarcerated is that everyone has failed them whether it be schools, mom and pop, and communities. Then they hand them off to us. We're supposed to make them better. And most of the time we do.
What wardens and secretaries like me want is for COs to come to us with ideas. People who are closest to the work know how to do the job better than us. They're doing it every day. We accept ideas from the bottom to the top now whereas before we were a top-driven industry. The newer generation of COs have the best ideas, and we're receptive.
C1: Florida COs we heard from on the C1 Facebook page are concerned that they haven't gotten a raise in five years. What's your answer to that?
Buss: Here in Florida, no one has sacrificed like the Department of Corrections. Our budget was cut $150 million for the next fiscal year. So what I'll be doing is going to the state legislature and Governor Scott and saying ‘Listen, staff did it, they've cut the budget while at the same time increased programming which is going to reduce recidivism and reduce the number of inmates coming into prison. So we need to start getting pay raises based on performance.' I think we have a good case of getting pay raises in the coming years.
C1: So you've been able to cut $150 million?
Buss: Yes, and in the past five months, we've cut $50 million off of the budget through consolidating regional offices. We had four regions and are now down to two regions: north and south. We've consolidated five regions. We've closed them and put those inmates and staff in different facilities.
C1: COs have some other ideas on how to save money. It's been suggested that you could charge inmates for a range of things like visitation, food, and clothing. What do you think about that?
Buss: I don't want to charge them for basic needs like toiletries. The State should be providing these kinds of things. I don't agree with that. Here's something we're going to do though. We're going to roll out MP3 players in the facilities. Currently offenders have cassettes and cassette tapes, which are expensive because nobody makes them. Under the new program, offenders will order a song for, say, a dollar. The first dime of that song will go back into the general fund. So we've have revenue-generating ideas to save money for the state.
C1: Was it your idea to cut wardens' pay by 5 percent in Florida?
Buss: No. That was the previous administration's idea. In Florida, wardens were all paid the same regardless of where they worked. My idea is to start paying for the level of facility they run. So if they run a maximum facility prison, they didn't take a pay cut and may make a little more. Those who are running minimum facilities did take a small cut in pay. But that won't happen right away. It will happen in the future.
C1: I noticed you banned smoking and you banned porn in the facilities. What kind of response have you had to that?
Buss: It's a no-brainer. These facilities are confining. If you make smoking areas outside, the actual housing units, inmates will still try to smoke inside. There are sanitation issues with it. We did a study and found we were paying $10 million in medical costs due to smoking in the state of Florida. So that's an easy $10 million we can save here by banning smoking.
On pornography, it's just not the environment for it. For example, we have quite a few female staff working and they shouldn't be exposed to that. In addition, sex offenders, rapists, and child molesters shouldn't have access to pornography.
C1: How were they getting access?
Buss: Through magazines which were allowed in. And pornography costs too much to control. In our mailroom, staff had to go through countless magazines each day to see which pictures were appropriate and which weren't. We only allow only certain materials and magazines in now.
C1: Does that mean you're banning smoking for the COs as well?
Buss: They will have a designated areas to smoke outside the institution.
C1: Is the number of inmates in Florida increasing or decreasing?
Buss: With 102,000 inmates, we're the third largest prison system in the country. That number has stabilized. It was projected to rise to 110,000, but we're seeing in some states across the country the numbers are decreasing. But here, we're stabilized. And that speaks to the specialty courts.
C1: What are your ideas on the possibility of privatization of prisons in Florida?
Buss: The legislature passed a bill to privatize a certain amount of facilities in southern Florida. It will be a one-of-a-kind prison expansion. We wrote the RFP and its being looked at by private companies. The language is tight. They won't be able to promote wardens, for example, unless I give approval. If we have to do it, we'll do it right in Florida.
I'll tell you what though...privatization of some services will be an improvement. Take health care, for example. I think there are private medical companies out there who do entire state systems now which are much better positioned to provide medical care than we are in state government.
C1: So is privatization a sure thing in Florida?
Buss: We don't know yet. It has to be proven to save money. So if it doesn't save money then we won't do it.
C1: COs are concerned about the unknowns of their pay and benefits if privatization does occur.
Buss: Yes, I understand and this lays heavy on my heart. Florida has never done it like this before. This is different in that they're going to place people from their state employment. They're coming into existing facilities and they've got to re-hire all the staff over.
It's tough as a leader to look at your staff and say, ‘It's gonna be all right. I'll make sure that if we go to private companies, you're going to have like-benefits, like-pay, and it's gonna be okay.' The unknown is a very tough situation.
C1: Are you shutting Hendry Work Camp down?
Buss: No. We're going to keep the work camp. It's vital in terms of farming.
C1: When you were a CO, what was the most rewarding part of that job?
Buss: The most rewarding was seeing that you made a difference. I'll be honest. I grew up in a tough joint. There were stabbings and sometimes you did have the opportunity to save someone's life. Or you were able to offer first aid to someone who needed it. You went home on a high that day because you know you made a difference. Even though it was an offender you know you made a difference in someone's life.
C1: And what was the most challenging part of that job?
Buss: Back then, things were very slow and hierarchy-based. You didn't have much decision-making power as a Correctional Officer. For years and years the old adage was ‘Well, it's always been done like this.' I felt stifled. I almost left corrections and went to the state police because I felt I couldn't make a difference because of old rules in place. If you wanted to do something, you had to go through the chain of command. You couldn't do anything unless you asked the lieutenant, who asked the captain, who asked the major, who asked the assistant warden and then to the warden.
But by the time all of those people got asked, you forgot what you wanted to do in the first place. It was very frustrating. I hope CO's in Florida today feel empowered to make change and ask questions.