April 24, 2015

House poised to overhaul prison inspections, impose new requirements at troubled agency

The investigative staff at the Department of Corrections would face an overhaul, officers who injure inmates could be subject to felonies, and the state would start a pilot project to put body cameras on prison guards, under a bill set to be given preliminary approval today in the Florida House.

The proposal is the first part of a bi-partisan agreement between the House and Senate to address questions of inmate abuse, allegations of staff cover-ups and evidence of organizational troubles that have been festering in the state’s prison system for years. The agency and its staff are also under investigation by both state and federal law enforcement agencies.

“There’s a lot of problems in the prison system and this is a monumental step forward – and it’s only the beginning,’’ said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, who negotiated the compromise with Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker.

The changes are included in an amendment by Trujillo to SB 7020. The second element of the deal, not included in the bill, is a promise to create a select committee of legislators to provide oversight of DOC, review treatment of inmates, investigate grievance trends and monitor implementation of provisions in the bill beginning this fall.

Evers began investigating DOC in January in the wake of several reports in the Miami Herald and other news organizations that exposed suspicious inmate deaths, questionable use of force and allegations of agency cover-ups. 

Faced with opposition from Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, the proposals no longer include elements that would have taken authority over the agency away from the governor. Evers originally proposed creating an independent oversight commission that would have the ability to investigation allegations of wrongdoing at the state’s largest agency. The Senate plan also would have required that DOC secretary to be appointed by the governor and Cabinet, with confirmation by the Senate. 

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April 20, 2015

Updated: Florida Channel agreed to mute name of inmate from Senate testimony

The Florida ChannelThe state-run public television channel agreed to remove the name of an inmate from the audio file of a Senate hearing in which a Department of Corrections whistle-blower alleged that potential criminal activity was ignored or cover-up at the agency, the executive director of The Florida Channel told the Herald/Times.

Doug Glisson, an inspector with the Department of Correction’s Office of Inspector General, testified under oath at the March 10 meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that the agency covered up potentially negligent medical care, criminal activity and sabotaged investigations to protect high ranking officials within the organization.

Among the examples Glisson cited was the case of inmate Quintin Foust, whose death was listed as “suspicious” by the medical examiner. Glisson said Foust was “undergoing medical care” at Jefferson Correctional Institution but did not provide any details about his medical condition or ailments. He said Foust “started having seizures” and “wound up dying.”  

Beth Switzer, executive director of The Florida Channel, said that "approximately two weeks after the meeting was held and subsequently archived on our site" she received a call from DOC spokesman McKinley Lewis "telling me that an 'inadvertent HIPAA violation' had occurred in the 3/10/15 meeting and asked if there was anything we could do to keep the person’s name from being repeated over and over again in violation of HIPAA."

The federal HIPAA privacy rule protects individuals from disclosure of identifiable health information.

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April 19, 2015

Increased prison oversight could ramp up scrutiny of private prison services

Looming in the background in the legislative debate over prison reform is a question that could come into new focus: How productive was the move to privatize prisons and inmate health care and how much farther should it go?

Florida legislative leaders last week tentatively agreed to the creation of a joint legislative oversight board with the power to investigate and monitor the performance of Florida’s troubled Department of Corrections. It’s goal is to secure the safety of inmates in the face of mounting reports of suspicious inmate deaths, excessive use of force and allegations of cover-ups at the agency that houses more than 101,000 prisoners, said sponsors of the measure, Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami.

But the legislative panel could also open the door to an evaluation of the recent shift in priorities that has led the state to open seven private prisons, contract out services for 21 inmate work camps, and shift mental healthcare and substance abuse treatment and inmate health care to private vendors.

“We are responsible for supervising every single person who is incarcerated in the State of Florida,’’ said Trujillo, sponsor of the House bill. “Our intention isn’t to privatize more facilities,” said Trujillo. “It is to look at inmate safety and some of the organizational problems that have led to the lack of inmate safety.”

More here

DOC scrubs testimony from prison whistle-blower for allegedly violating HIPAA

Doug GlissonThe Department of Corrections concluded that the name of an inmate should be erased from the video testimony of an whistle-blower at a Senate committee because of federal HIPAA privacy laws, an agency spokesman told the Herald/Times.

Doug Glisson, an inspector with the DOC’s Office of Inspector General, testified under oath at the March 10 meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that the agency covered up potentially negligent medical care, criminal activity and sabotaged investigations to protect high ranking officials within the organization.

Among the examples Glisson cited was the case of inmate Quintin Foust, whose death was listed as “suspicious” by the medical examiner. Glisson said Foust was “undergoing medical care” at Jefferson Correctional Institution but did not provide any details about his medical condition or ailments. He said Foust “started having seizures” and “wound up dying.”  

Glisson said he and his investigator believed that a criminal investigation should have been conducted of Foust’s death but was told by “upper management at the Office of Inspector General to close that criminal case” because of a “conversation he had had with the state attorney’s office and that we would run that case administratively.” 

Foust's cause of death is now listed as "natural" on the DOC web site. 

Some time after the Senate hearing, DOC concluded that Glisson’s testimony violated the federal HIPAA privacy rule, which protects individuals from disclosure of identifiable health information, said McKinley Lewis, DOC spokesman.  

Lewis then provided the time codes from the video to The Florida Channel and asked them to scrub the name references from the audio. 

"The department notified The Florida Channel that some of the information released violated federal HIPAA law,’’ Lewis said. “We have a responsibility to protect the personal health information of all inmates and staff.” 

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April 18, 2015

DOC now reassigns prison whistle-blowers, targets them for investigation, has audio scrubbed

Doug GlissonOne month after the Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones told the Senate Appropriations Committee that she had asked the governor's chief investigator to look into the claims the whistle-blowers that DOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley impeded their investigations into suspicious inmate deaths,  three of the officers have not been interviewed by anyone looking into the matter, according to the attorney for the three.

Instead, the inspectors, who risked their careers by going public, now face intense scrutiny. 

The Miami Herald has learned that two of the DOC inspectors who testified last month before state lawmakers — Doug Glisson and John Ulm — have been stripped of their investigative posts and slapped with a pile of internal affairs complaints.

A third inspector, David Clark, who did not testify but publicly alleged Beasley tried to sabotage cases, has also been transferred, DOC officials confirmed Thursday. They are among nine inspectors currently under investigation, according to department spokesman McKinley Lewis.

Meanwhile, the archive of Glisson's sworn testimony before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on March 10 has been scrubbed of some of his audio as blank gaps now exist as he discusses cases in which he is alleging cover-ups and wrongdoing. 

Glisson, a supervisor who has a 20-year career in law enforcement, had a spotless history with the agency, according to his attorney, Steven Andrews. All three have been moved to DOC headquarters in Tallahassee and assigned to offices with no access to DOC records. For the most part, Andrews said, they’ve been given busy work to pass the time.

“This is the clearest case of retaliation I’ve seen in my 37 years of practicing law,’’ said Andrews, who represents Ulm, Clark and Glisson.

Jones told Senate Committees in March and again in April that she had asked Inspector General Melinda Miguel to investigate "every single accusation that they made" to determine if there was any wrongdoing by the inspector general, any rules violations or any evidence of employees being put under undue pressure.

More here.

April 16, 2015

Three guards plead guilty in federal court to abusing inmates


Three of the “Chipley Five,’’ a group of corrections officers accused of beating and kicking a handcuffed inmate at the Northwest Florida Reception Center in Chipley, have pleaded guilty to civil rights violations, the Department of Justice announced Thursday.

Former state prison guards William Finch, 35, of Wauseau, and Dalton E. Riley, 24, of Bethlehem, pleaded guilty Thursday before a federal judge in Panama City. A third ex-officer, Robert L. Miller, 48, of Lynn Haven, pleaded guilty on April 1.

The three admitted that they beat inmate Jeremiah Tatum, then tried to cover it up. According to the state attorney, Finch falsified reports by stating they attacked Tatum because he had spit on one of the officers.

Two other officers, James Perkins and Christopher Christmas, also face federal charges in connection with the Aug. 5 beating, which was allegedly planned in advance as retaliation against Tatum.

A captain, James Kirkland, allegedly orchestrated the assault after Tatum tried to block the chemical agents sprayed on him and, as a result, some of the gas dispersed onto Kirkland and another corrections officer, according to court documents.

More here.

Legislative leaders agree 'in concept' on prison reform deal

A panel of legislators would be empowered to investigate and subpoena staff at the Department of Corrections in an effort to provide aggressive oversight and demand reform at the troubled agency, under a compromise prison reform plan being floated by top negotiators for the House and Senate.

The tentative deal was hatched Thursday between Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, as they huddled together in the House chamber during the morning legislative session.

The proposal would replace a provision in the Senate’s prison reform bill, SB 7020, to create a nine-member independent oversight commission approved by the governor, Evers said.

The compromise would create a legislative select committee with at least four investigators. It would have the power to subpoena staff, monitor inmate and staff grievances, investigate complaints, take public testimony, meet regularly and monitor DOC’s ability to follow performance standards.

“It’s everything the commission would be but made up of House and Senate members,’’ said Evers, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee who spearheaded the call for prison reform. SB 7020 has passed the Senate and is awaiting approval in the House. "We have an agreement in concept but it's a far cry from where we were six months ago when no one was even talking about this, and nobody would have even considered an oversight board." 

The compromise still must get conceptual approval from House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and then be approved by the full House and Senate.  

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April 14, 2015

Key legislator wants prison inspector general fired

Jeffery BeasleyA House committee took aim at the state’s chief prison inspector Tuesday, first accusing Jeffery Beasley of failing to properly investigate suspicious inmate deaths, then approving a plan to make it easier for the Department of Correction’s secretary to fire him and his staff.

"We have inmates that are being scalded to death in Miami Dade County; inmates that are being pepper-sprayed and murdered, and nothing is being done about it,’’ said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, referring to a series of reports in the Miami Herald, at a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. "Ask yourself, why is this happening?"

But DOC Secretary Julie Jones, who has been defending Beasley for months, continued to support her top investigator but acknowledged he should leave the job.

"Given the perception of all of the issues associated with the IGs office, I agree we need to make a change ultimately in leadership and structure in the IGs office,’’ she told the Herald/Times.

The mission of the inspector general’s office is to "protect and promote public integrity" and root out corruption in the department that has been buffeted by investigations by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the statewide prosecutor, the FBI, and the recent arrest of two current corrections officers for allegedly planning the murder of a former inmate.

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Trujillo unveils House plan to tighten prison oversight

The chief inspector general of the prison system and most of his top staff would be replaced, prison guards would wear body cameras, a hotline would log abuse claims and five regional oversight boards would conduct unannounced prison inspections under a massive rewrite of the House prison reform bill.

The proposal will be offered Tuesday by House Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Carlos Trujillo as an amendment to HB 7131, in an attempt to bridge the gap between a comprehensive Senate bill and the weaker House version. Both bills are a response to allegations of abuse and corruption in Florida’s prison system.

“This bill is taking us 80 percent of the way there, but it is a work in progress,’’ Trujillo told the Herald/Times of his proposal, filed late Monday. “There are other things that can’t be addressed in one bill, but it’s a start.”

Trujillo said he was motivated to revise the House proposal after testimony from inmate families and prison reform advocates who pleaded with the House to strengthen its legislation. It will be voted on by the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The proposal envisions a wholesale review of all hiring practices, employee retention policies and employee training, Trujillo said. It requires that the state create five regional oversight boards, staffed by state employees whose terms would last no more than four years, and the goal would be to increase oversight and accountability at the troubled agency.

More here.

April 10, 2015

Students march to protest KKK and 'racism' in Florida's prisons

RallyShouting "DOC, KKK, how many people have you killed today," a group of about 100 students marched on the Capitol late Thursday protesting racism in Florida and it's prison system. 

The rally began at the Florida State University Westcott building and continued up College Avenue as the sun set on the Capitol. They shouted chants and carried banners that read "Klan out Now," "Crush the KKK" and ended the march on the Capitol steps, where they burned a Confederate flag.

The rally, organized by the Students for a Democratic Society at FSU, was prompted by the distribution of recruitment flyers from the Ku Klux Klan in Tallahassee neighborhoods and reports of racist attacks on prisoners at the Department of Corrections, said Zachary Schultz, an organizer of the rally.

"Our position is any attempt by the KKK or any white nationalist to organize, we are not going to let it fester,'' he said.

The Tallahassee Democrat reported that fliers directed at the Islamic faith proclaiming "Save our Land. Join the Klan," were packaged with bags of candy and distributed in Tallahassee neighborhoods in March. 

Charles Thomas Newcomb, identified as “Exalted Cyclops” of the Traditionalist American Knights of the KKK, was among the three current and former officers at the Department of Corrections who were arrested by the FBI last week for plotting the murder of a released inmate.

"That just shows they are a terrorist organization in the United States and we're going to organize, build a movement here, and show all the white supremacists there are people in Tallahassee that are ready to fight back," Schultz said.  

Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers monitored the peaceful event and members of the Tallahassee police bicycle squad were also at the scene. 

UPDATE: The original post incorrectly named someone else arrested by the FBI.