Walt McNeil, who just completed his first year as Florida’s juvenile justice chief, was promoted yesterday when Gov. Charlie Crist made him the second African American in state history to lead Florida’s increasingly burdened prison system, the Miami Herald reports. McNeil takes the reins of the $2 billion Department of Corrections as the state budget shrinks and the number of inmates swells past 95,000. By year’s end, about 100,000 people will be locked up, prompting the likely need for $649 million more in prison construction spending next year.
Advocates are pressing federal court challenges to Florida’s lethal-injection procedures and the state’s treatment of a fast-growing segment of the prison population: mentally ill inmates, some of whom had been repeatedly pepper-sprayed by guards. McNeil, 52, former Tallahassee police chief, was spared a troubling challenge that his predecessor, Jim McDonough, had to clean up: a federal corruption probe that ensnared former prisons chief Jim Crosby in a bribery scheme, and a ”culture of brutality” — in McDonough’s words — that fostered rampant violence between guards, who did everything from beating inmates to selling steroids to stealing prison property. McNeil, a Democrat and practicing Methodist, wants to expand faith-based prison programs, having participated in a federal prison program when he was police chief. He said the plight of mentally ill inmates ”screams out” for more attention.