Florida prisons are becoming deadlier. More than 3,900 inmates in 68 prisons have died, some by unusual circumstances, since 2000. For the last year, the Miami Herald has investigated suspicious deaths reported to the Florida Department of Corrections, including a Dade Correctional Institution inmate who was found dead in a small, enclosed shower at the prison in June 2012. State data released last fall showed inmate deaths have increased by 40 percent in the last 15 years. And that number continues to rise.
The two DVDs were only minutes long but they depicted deplorable conditions in the state’s prison system: uninhabitable dorms, inmate-on-staff assaults and roofs that were so porous that prison staff rigged sheets of cardboard to serve as makeshift gutters.
It was a vivid example of chronic underfunding and understaffing at the Florida Department of Corrections, and then-Secretary Michael Crews wanted to show them to legislators last year in his effort to make the case for more money.
But the graphic pictures didn’t fit the jobs message of Gov. Rick Scott, who came into office vowing to cut $1 billion from prisons. The governor’s office ordered Crews not to show them. He made copies and distributed them to the chairmen of legislative committees anyway and, while no one agreed to show them publicly, Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, encouraged his budget committee to take a look.
The governor’s office says it doesn’t know who Crews shared the videos with, but it is now embracing the need for more money. Last year, however, the governor’s budget staff downsized Crews’ request for inmate food and for additional corrections staff, and the Legislature gave the DOC only some of what Crews sought. Another year of budget struggles at the troubled agency was underway. Story here.
The constant volume of suspicious inmate deaths in Florida’s prisons prompted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Tuesday to ask legislators for 17 additional investigators and $2.3 million.
The money, which was not included in Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget, is needed to allow the agency to comply with a newly-updated agreement between FDLE and the Florida Department of Corrections, said Jennifer Cook Pritt, FDLE assistant commissioner.
Under the agreement, signed by new FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen and DOC Secretary Julie Jones earlier this month, FDLE must investigate all prison deaths in which medical personnel are not in attendance to determine if criminal activity was involved.
FDLE expects to investigate at least 60 prison deaths next year, based on the fact that the agency investigated 15 suspicious deaths in the last quarter of 2014, Pritt said.
The new “Memorandum of Understanding” updates a previous agreement between former FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey and former DOC Secretary Michael Crews which required law enforcement to investigate all deaths, even those in which inmates died of cancer or other natural causes. Download 2015 MOU - FDLE and DOC Inves of Specified Incidents- Signed (2) (1)
Florida’s prison system would undergo a historic overhaul that would require the troubled agency to report to an independent oversight board with the power to investigate and crackdown on abuse and wrongdoing, under a proposal filed Friday by a key senator.
Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, filed a 40-page amendment to SB 7020 that weakens the governor’s authority over the Department of Corrections in the wake of mounting evidence that the agency can no longer police itself.
The agency has been pummeled by reports of suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that its chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored inmate abuse. Use of force in state prisons has almost doubled in the past five years, and critics say it has led to widespread abuse among untrained prison guards working 12-hour shifts in understaffed prisons.
Under the plan, which Evers hopes to win legislative approval, future DOC secretaries would be appointed by the governor but must get the consent of the independently-elected Cabinet -- a move that will dilute the governor’s control over the agency that has seen massive budget cutbacks and four secretaries in four years.
"There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,’’ said Allison DeFoor, director of the director of the Project on Accountable Justice, a consortium of four universities which recommended the oversight board as one of the reforms needed to bring more accountability to the prison system.
He said that many governors have tried to fix Florida’s prisons and he believes legislators have concluded that Scott, and Julie Jones, his latest DOC secretary, now need outside help.
"As Albert Einstein said, ‘the mind that created the problem cannot solve it,’’’ DeFoor said. "So it’s time to round up a posse and get this fixed.’’ More here.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones defended her recently-imposed "confidentiality agreement" on prison inspectors Wednesday, telling a House committee the new rule was "more or less a good housekeeping piece" and "not intended as a gag order."
She conceded that "everything that you have heard about the department is true,’’ referring to troubles within her inspectors’ general office, but said the agreement was intended to address the concerns and protect investigators.
"We have problems,’’ Jones told the House Criminal Justice Committee. "We have good people. We have some bad people,’’ We have a dedicated core of inspector generals that are doing a tough job trying to weed out [wrongdoing.]"
But she said that when she started as secretary in January, she discovered the agency did not require investigators to sign a confidentiality agreement like inspectors in other law enforcement agencies.
The agreement, required to be signed by inspectors by Feb. 19, is intended "to make sure that anything the inspector general touches stays within the inspector general’s office and does not go outside that chain of command," she said.
Piper Kerman, whose memoir “Orange in the New Black” inspired the successful NetFlix series, told the Senate Democratic caucus that the recent focus on Florida’s prisons is “very deserved” because the state “struggles to operate a system which is professional, which is humane and which is safe.”
“All you need to know, as a proof point on that, is to see the shocking number of deaths coming out of the Florida system, especially in recent years,’’ she said. “Those are not deaths by natural causes, those are not deaths by another inmate, those are prisoners who are killed by Florida staff.”
Kerman, 45, pleaded guilty for money laundering and drug trafficking in 1998 and served 13 months of a 15 month sentence. Her memoir documents her time in a Connecticut women’s prison and she now dedicates her time advocating for prison reform and awareness of women in incarceration. She was invited to talk about her experience and observation to the caucus by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.
Kerman urged the senators to not to look at the stories of abuse, neglect and cover-ups in Florida prisons in isolation but as part of a deeper, systemic problem and hold them accountable. She cited the death of Latandra Ellington, a 36-year-old mother of four who died at Lowell Correctional Institution after writing a letter to her aunt that detailed threats of abuse and death by a sergeant.
Ellington was serving a 22-month sentence “for basically passing bad checks” and she was allegedly “kicked to death in an isolation cell,” she said. “I don’t know how many of you have visited a prison in your district, but I can tell you, nobody gets in an out of an isolation unit under secret, under cover of night. Staff don’t sneak into isolation units...
“So the idea that some of the things that transpired in the Florida correctional system are ‘a few bad apples’ is not true. Because someone doesn’t perpetrate that kind of crime unless they can get away with it.”
Photo: Sen. Greg Evers greets author Piper Kerman before she addresses the Senate Democratic Caucus. Evers, R-Baker, is chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Faced with speaking up or losing their jobs, two inspectors with the Department of Corrections asked a circuit court in Leon County Monday to stop the Department of Corrections from enforcing a new gag order they say is an attempt at intimidating them from discussing cases that are public record or reporting misconduct.
The inspectors, Aubrey Land and John Ulm, were among several agency staff told by DOC Secretary Julie Jones that they had until Feb. 17 to sign three documents pledging not to discuss open or closed investigations -- even if the investigations are a public record. Employees who failed to sign could be subject to "immediate termination."
The confidentiality agreement violates several state and federal statutes and "is tantamount to FDOC-sponsored obstruction of justice and censorship," Land and Ulm said in the complaint. Download 2015.02.09 COMPLAINT FOR DEC JUDGMENT & INJ RELIEF (1)
The virtual gag order came on the same week that two Senate committees asked detailed questions about the agency’s handling of suspicious inmate deaths and questionable investigations in the wake of reports in the Miami Herald, and a whistleblower lawsuit filed by the inspectors and their supervisors.
After the Miami Herald reported on the new rules, Jones issued a statement that the agreement would not prevent inspectors "from fulfilling their duties as public servants and law enforcement officers."
She said that the agreement was intended to insured the integrity of their investigations and to protect both "aggrieved individuals and the inspectors.” She noted that since she began in the job in early January she has implemented a policy “to make clear that all complaints will be taken seriously and remain confidential during the investigative phase.”
She said the goal of the agreement “is to ensure that those who come forward are not subject to retaliation of any kind."
Two days after Florida legislators asked a series of probing questions of the top inspector at the Department of Corrections, the agency has banned inspectors from discussing any investigations, releasing any public records relating to agency probes, or even voluntarily bringing information to outsiders — including legislators.
The virtual gag order requires all employees of the Office of Inspector General to sign a confidentiality agreement and three other documents pledging they will not use the department database for unauthorized use, will not release information on open or closed cases to anyone, and will not compromise their independence while they are working in the department.
Any violation could result in “immediate termination.” The Office of Inspector General is charged with investigating criminal wrongdoing or policy violations in the state’s prison system.
Agency spokesman McKinley Lewis said the change was implemented Thursday by new DOC Secretary Julie Jones because she wanted to impose a standard used by most law enforcement agencies. He described the documents as “basic, normal forms that tell people to follow the law” and said it is part of Jones’ effort to “fix many things in the department.”
But the timing of the gag order raised questions and drew immediate criticism from lawmakers. This week, two Senate committees asked for data on agency investigations and grilled DOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley about the complaints of current and former inspectors who have been denied whistleblower status.
“This right here is a slap in my face,’’ said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which has been looking into agency practices in the wake of suspicious inmate deaths, reports of medical neglect, contraband rings and budget issues. Read more here
Photo: Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones
Here's the letter from the lawyer for the four investigators who were denied whistleblower status and copies of the new policies: Download 2015.02.05 LTR TO IGNACIO and VAIL re FREEDOM OF SPEECH CONF. AGMT
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones put a positive spin on negative reports about scandal, death and excessive use of force at her agency Monday as she told a Senate committee that the agency faces a “perception problem” but the obstacles are “temporary.”
Her assurances that her proposal to spend $15 million on infrastructure improvements and $16.5 million on hiring new staff will bring a “new day” for the department were greeted with skepticism by some members of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, however.
Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, the chairman of the committee, urged Jones to immediately renegotiate contracts with private companies that provide medical services to inmates. Jones previously said the companies are providing inadequate medical care.
He warned that the state must act more aggressively to deal with its troubled prisons or face federal takeover of the system — as happened 40 years ago when Florida State Prison inmate Michael Costello filed a lawsuit alleging that his constitutional rights were violated because of inadequate medical care. The federal courts assumed oversight of the state’s prisons for more than two decades, ordering legislators to relieve crowding and improve healthcare.
“We can operate our prison system more efficiently than the federal government,’’ said Evers after the meeting. “If we do not make changes this legislative session, I am very afraid of what might happen.”
His comments came a day after former DOC Secretary Mike Crews directed sharp criticism at Gov. Rick Scott, saying he ignored budget requests and appeals to increase staff and improve working conditions, which he said was contributing to stress and excessive use of force.
Jones said the agency abides by rules “that you don’t lay hands on inmates” but “there’s a perception that we’re not doing it.’’
“We’ve got a perception problem,’’ she said.
Responding to criticism that there was an 18 percent rise in use of force in the past year, she said deeper analysis shows there was a corresponding increase in actions by inmates that provoked the use of force.
That prompted Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, to ask if she thought Crews “is wrong?”
Jones said she hadn’t heard what Crews said. “I’m having a difficult time with that,’’ she said. “Use of force is going down.” Read more here.
Photo: Evers and Jones confer before the committee meeting Monday
It was July 10, 2014. Mike Crews, then-secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, was in the thick of a public firestorm over allegations that a mentally ill inmate had died in a scalding shower as part of a punishment ritual by officers at Dade Correctional Institution.
Crews, a former law enforcement officer who had been at the helm of the state’s largest agency for close to three years, had been fielding calls from the governor’s office for weeks. Each message seemed more urgent than the last, with Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign in full swing and civil rights groups calling for a U.S. Justice Department investigation into a series of questionable prison deaths.
“We need you to take a bullet for the governor,’’ Crews recalled being told by the governor’s chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, as he was driving home that afternoon from North Carolina, where and he and his wife had spent a few days decompressing.
The former prisons chief, in an exclusive interview with the Miami Herald, said the governor’s office asked him to fire people Crews didn’t believe should fired; it wrote press releases that said things he didn’t say, and orchestrated hastily arranged news conferences that were little more than smokescreens designed to distract from the real crisis that Crews was sounding the alarm on for years: Florida’s prisons were so rundown and understaffed that they had become dangerous.
“I guess you can say they were more concerned with the crafting and writing of news releases and that had little to do with the reality of what needed to be done to keep the institutions safe and secure,’’ Crews said of the governor’s office. Story here.