July 08, 2015

Prison agency vows 'increased accountability' after grand jury report on inmate beating

Matthew WalkerThe Florida Department of Corrections announced Tuesday it was conducting an internal investigation into the five guards implicated by a grand jury in the beating death of a Charlotte Correctional Institution inmate last year and will begin conducting psychological evaluations of new staff in response to recommendations by the citizens panel. 

The policy changes are the result of a scathing rebuke of the state prison agency by a Charlotte County grand jury which investigated the death of inmate Matthew Walker in April 2014.

In a presentment unsealed Tuesday, the grand jury concluded that because the prison failed to collect evidence and contain the crime scene, there was not enough evidence to bring charges against the prison officers suspected of beating the 45-year-old inmate to death. 

The grand jury concluded that Walker’s death was “tragic, senseless and avoidable.” Unable to indict, the panel made a series of recommendations "to assist the Department of Corrections to avoid these types of incidents in the future."

The Department of Corrections told the Miami Herald that the agency was prepared to "aggressively address the recommendations and concerns voiced by the grand jury" and during the course of the investigation "implemented proactive policies and procedures which increase the accountability of our officers and the wellbeing and safety of our inmates."

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July 07, 2015

Grand jury report rips Florida prison over deadly beatdown

via @jknipebrown

Matthew Walker was unconscious, handcuffed, face-down on the sidewalk, in front of a dorm at Charlotte Correctional Institution. The inmate had been beaten and his larynx was crushed so badly that his throat was swollen shut.

Lt. Tyler Triplett, blood on his white shirt, stood over him.

“Do you know who I am? I’m going to kill you mother------!” he shouted, so visibly angry that he had to be restrained by his supervisor, a corrections captain.

But corrections officers were busy tending to the minor injuries of two guards hurt during a melee with Walker, so they let him lay there, thinking that he was faking.

“Whatever game you’re playing, you need to get up and walk. My staff is too tired to do this,” the captain, David Thomas, told him, according to witnesses.

But Walker, 45, had already asphyxiated and, according to a grand jury report released Tuesday, over the next few hours, prison staff removed, contaminated or cleaned up most of the crime scene evidence. The officers gathered in a room, wrote their reports and, a few days later, met again at a convenience store near the prison, ostensibly to support each other after the ordeal, the report said.

In a blistering and graphic rebuke of the Florida Department of Corrections, the Charlotte County grand jury report stated that Walker’s death — ruled a homicide by the medical examiner — was “tragic, senseless and avoidable” and the result of a gross litany of failures by prison staff.

More here.

June 15, 2015

Deputy prison secretary, Tim Cannon, announces retirement

Tim CannonOne of the longest serving officials at the Department of Corrections, Tim Cannon, announced Monday he is retiring as deputy secretary of institutions effective July 31.

Cannon, a 25-year veteran of the department, rose through the ranks of the $2.1 billion agency that has more than 22,000 employees. During his tenure, DOC saw the number of inmates increase to more than 100,000, use-of-force reports filed by staff climbed to unprecedented heights and suspicious inmate deaths rose.

"Mr. Cannon’s leadership, compassion and correctional experience have had a positive impact on our Department,'' said DOC Secretary Julie Jones in a statement. He will be replaced by Ricky Dixon as interim deputy secretary of institutions, Jones said.

"God has richly blessed me during my career,'' Cannon said in his retirement note to Jones. "I have developed long lasting friendships and relationships with both staff and inmates that have enriched my life. I love this Department and the people that serve our state, I am very confident that the Agency will move forward under your leadership. God bless and thank you for your support and friendship."

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June 11, 2015

Two Franklin County prison guards arrested by feds for inmate abuse

via @jknipebrown

Two officers at Florida’s Franklin Correctional Institution were indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on charges that they beat an inmate and violated his civil rights.

William J. Ray, 40, of Carrabelle, and Corry B. Fletcher, 43, of Bristol, “conspired to violate the civil rights of a state inmate and deprived the inmate of constitutional rights,” according to a news release by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Justice Department officials did not release the name of the inmate. They said he was physically assaulted without justification. They also did not release any further details of the incident, which happened in July 2014. They said, however, that Fletcher obstructed justice by lying to the FBI and agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The two were arraigned in federal court Wednesday and a trial date was set for July 13.

“The department has a zero-tolerance for misconduct of any kind and will continue to employ every available resource to investigate any violation of department policy and procedure,” DOC Secretary Julie Jones said in a statement, adding that corrections officers will be held accountable for criminal acts.

Neither the federal indictment nor the arrest affidavits were made available by the Justice Department on Wednesday.

Last year, the Florida Department of Corrections had a record number of inmate deaths, most of them classified as the result of natural causes. 

May 28, 2015

State settles lawsuit over treatment of mentally ill inmates

via @JKnipeBrown

Inmates with mental illnesses who were once confined around the clock to a cell block filled with feces, rotten food and insects — and sometimes allegedly beaten, tortured and starved by staff — should be treated more humanely under a landmark lawsuit settlement reached this week between the Florida Department of Corrections and a statewide disability advocacy group.

The agreement could have far-reaching impact. It requires the state to overhaul the way it treats inmates with mental disorders at Dade Correctional Institution, which has the largest mental health facility in the state prison system.

Disability Rights of Florida brought the action following a series of stories last year in the Miami Herald about guards at Dade Correctional who allegedly used scalding showers and other sadistic forms of discipline to punish and humiliate inmates in the prison’s psychiatric ward, or Transitional Care Unit.

The disability rights group found that the blistering-hot showers, coupled with other physical and mental abuse and a lack of adequate healthcare, were the norm at the institution in June 2012, when 50-year-old inmate Darren Rainey collapsed and died in a shower that had been cranked up to 180 degrees.

Witnesses said that Rainey, who was serving time on a drug charge, was forced into the specially rigged stall by corrections officers, who taunted him as he screamed in panic for nearly two hours until he died.

Other inmates complained that guards forced them to perform sex acts, had them fight each other for the staff’s entertainment, terrorized them with threats and beatdowns and put laxatives and urine in their food. One inmate, Richard Mair, hanged himself after leaving a note detailing alleged atrocities at the hands of officers. Although the prison disciplined some guards for failing to conduct timely security checks the day of the hanging, the agency’s inspector general did little to inquire into Mair’s claims, citing the fact that he was dead and could no longer be questioned.

The advocacy group discovered evidence that officers often targeted those inmates in the unit who suffered from the most severe mental illnesses, and that the medical staff at the prison often failed to report the abuse.

“Mr. Rainey was not the only victim of the shower treatment. What we learned is that, to some extent, those same abuses were affecting others in the unit," said Peter Sleasman, of the Florida Institutional Legal Services Project, which brought the lawsuit for Disability Rights Florida.

Guards who worked in the TCU have been replaced by officers specially trained to handle inmates with mental illnesses, he said. In addition, under the negotiated agreement, experts have been brought in to monitor and evaluate the unit over the next several months. The DOC also has its own experts evaluating the facility and the two parties will come together by year’s end to draw up additional reforms.

Sleasman said that his organization is evaluating other mental health treatment units in prisons around the state, and hopes the reforms implemented at Dade Correctional will be employed at the other facilities.

The agreement is unusual, Sleasman said, because the Department of Corrections cooperated with the advocates to come up with a plan in a timely manner.

More here.

May 20, 2015

Feds launch criminal investigation into Miami-Dade inmate's shower death

via @juliekbrown

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has begun a criminal investigation into the death of Darren Rainey, the 50-year-old inmate who was locked in a shower that had been converted into a scalding torture chamber at Dade Correctional Institution.

The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of Florida also are questioning witnesses in connection with alleged atrocities in the prison’s mental health ward, including a practice of starving inmates so severely that they would snap off sprinkler-heads, flooding their cells and violating fire codes, so they would be arrested and sent to the county jail, where they would be fed.

Rainey’s death nearly three years ago, along with subsequent stories about rampant inmate abuse as well as a record number of deaths in Florida’s prisons, has spawned demands for an overhaul of the Florida Department of Corrections. The agency’s inspector general, Jeffery Beasley, has been accused of trying to whitewash suspicious deaths, medical neglect cases and corruption. He himself is the subject of a state investigation after four of his subordinates stated under oath this year that he asked them to sideline cases that would give the agency “a black eye.’’

For more than a year, the Miami Herald has investigated claims, interviewed witnesses and reviewed hundreds of records from current and former inmates and staff at Dade Correctional, located on the edge of the Everglades south of Homestead. Alleged abuses included sexual assaults by officers against inmates, racially motivated beatings and the withholding of food from inmates in one wing of the mental health ward.

More here.

May 08, 2015

Gov. Rick Scott signs executive order to reform Florida prisons

From Gov. Rick Scott's office:

Governor Rick Scott today signed Executive Order 15-102 which makes significant reforms in Florida’s prison system to improve safety, transparency and accountability. The measures included in Executive Order 15-102 were recommended by Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones and various stakeholders. Many of the included reforms are currently being implemented by the FDOC to increase safety.

Governor Scott said, “The steps outlined in today’s executive order present a clear path forward for the Florida Department of Corrections. The Department’s number one focus is the safety of Florida’s correctional officers, communities and the inmates in state custody and supervision. I would like to thank Secretary Jones for advancing the Department’s mission by increasing transparency and accountability in all Florida correctional institutions.” 

“The Florida Department of Corrections is committed to progress and reform through data-driven initiatives and actions,” said Secretary Julie Jones. “Looking forward, it is critically important that this Department continues in our efforts to be accountable to the people of Florida, our employees and the hundreds of thousands of inmates and offenders under our custody and supervision.”

Read the governor's four-page executive order here.

May 05, 2015

FDLE arrests two Department of Corrections officers for inmate abuse

Dwight Simsvia @jknipebrown

Two guards at Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City have been charged in connection with the brutal beating of an inmate, which they allegedly tried to cover up.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents arrested Correctional Officer Sgt. Christopher Michael Jernigan, 37, and Correctional Officer Donald Dwight Sims, Jr., 21, on charges of aggravated battery and failure to report. Jernigan is also charged with tampering with evidence. The investigation, the latest of several in the Florida prison system involving alleged brutality, began at the request of the Department of Corrections with investigative assistance from the department’s Office of Inspector General.

The investigation determined that Jernigan and Sims beat inmate Shurick Lewis, 41, at Columbia Correctional on Feb. 11, 2015, while he was being moved from a holding cell to a confinement cell. Prior to the battery, Jernigan and Sims ordered other inmates to clear the area and proceeded to a small area with no video surveillance.

After the assault, witnesses say Lewis was bleeding from his nose and mouth and his eye was swollen. He was seen by a prison nurse and sent back to his cell. Several hours later, he was found unresponsive by officers on the next shift and Lewis was transported to Shands Hospital, where he was treated for a broken nose and several facial fractures.

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April 28, 2015

Prison reform becomes a casualty of early session demise

By Mary Ellen Klas and Michael Auslen

As the session melted down on Tuesday, Senate President Andy Gardiner announced that the prison reform compromise -- which featured the Senate agreeing to withdraw from its position for an independent oversight board -- was now a casualty of the impasse.

"The last three days of session, we should be negotiating that as a partner," Gardiner told the chamber after the House had adjourned three days early. Of the prison reform bill that was passed by the House last week, he said: "That bill's not going to make it."

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he was satisfied to drop the compromise bill, which he had worked on with his counterpart in the House, Rep. Carlos Trujillo. The Senate had agreed to remove many of the provisions it had sought in exchange for some reforms but the additional oversight depended on the Senate president and House speaker to follow up with the creation of a joint select committee to pursue prison reform.

"There will not be a reform bill coming out,'' Evers told the Herald/Times. "But I'm sure that the Senate president will set up a committee for the oversight of the Department of Corrections."

He said that many of the changes sought by the bill can be made by rule and at the direction of the DOC secretary. "So the reforms, yes, will be made."

Gardiner told reporters that he is prepared to assign Senate staff, and the Senate Criminal Justice Committe, to continue the investigations into the troubled agency.

 "If it doesn't pass, then we will put our corrections committee on the road within a couple of weeks, and they'll do their own investigations,'' he said. "I can subpoena people. We're not done with that. It's unfortunate that the House did what they did."

Evers noted that the issue could emerge as part of a special session on the budget. 

"Am I going to reevaluate it? No,'' he said. "Because it's not going to do anything within the bill that can't be done by rule. I feel reasonably sure that the Senate president, that we will set up our own committee and we will direct it to take care of the oversight of the Department of Corrections." 

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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