April 01, 2015

Senate passes prison oversight but battle ahead remains in House

Jail Miami Herald

Responding to allegations of abuse and corruption in Florida’s prison system, the state Senate voted Wednesday to create an independent oversight commission with subpoena powers to investigate wrongdoing at the state Department of Corrections.

The bill, SB 2070, passed the Florida Senate 37-1 and creates the nine-member Florida Corrections Commission, which would have the power to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud and inmate abuse, as well as review budget proposals and make policy recommendations.

The proposal comes in the wake of months of reports about suspicious inmate deaths, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that its chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored inmate abuse.

In the last four years, the agency has seen massive budget cutbacks and four secretaries. Reported use-of-force incidents have nearly doubled in the past five years, inmates deaths have risen, and critics say understaffed prisons have spawned widespread abuse among prison guards working 12-hour shifts.

Seizing on the reports, Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, conducted surprise inspections at several prisons and pushed for the sweeping reforms. The oversight commission was championed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, "lost trust" in the ability of the $2 billion agency to police itself.

The Senate also began debate on its budget, which includes $6.9 million to pay for the oversight commission and $15 million to fill the long-held deficit in the prison budget. 

"Members, this was your bill,’’ Evers told the Senate, before the near unanimous vote. Only Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, voted against it. "Each one of you have had input and I appreciate the support that you have given me in passage of this great bill."

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, commended Evers for legislation that provides "the key oversight necessary to implement critical programs to protect inmates from mistreatment, to strengthen the security of our prison system, and to keep Florida communities safe."

But the measure faces an uphill battle in the House, which has proposed a watered down prison bill that includes none of the added oversight, inspections or the independent commission. It also faces a potential challenge from Gov. Rick Scott, who has remained silent on the prison troubles as his agency secretary, Julie Jones, has blamed lack of funding and a few “disgruntled employees” for the allegations.

Continue reading "Senate passes prison oversight but battle ahead remains in House " »

March 24, 2015

Legislators advance different prison plans while some House members seek compromise

As the Florida House and Senate advanced vastly different prison plans on Tuesday, some House leaders hinted that there may be room for compromise.

The full Senate advanced SB 7020, a proposal to create a Florida Corrections Commission, an independent oversight board with the power to hold Department of Corrections officials accountable for prison budgets, discipline and investigations. The Senate adopted a handful of amendments to the bill and will take it up for a final vote as early as next week.

Meanwhile, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted unanimously for it modest prison plan, PCB CRJS 15-07, that serves as a counter-point to the Senate proposal by stripping out all prison oversight and penalties. But, moments after the committee passed that measure, two influential Republican lawmakers said they want the House to consider alternatives. 

“There is a need for a practical outside oversight -- with reputable people -- that can make strong recommendations,’’ said Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, a retired law enforcement officer, after the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted unanimously for a modest prison bill, PCB CRJS 15-07, that serves as a counter-point to a broad Senate plan. 

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chairman of the committee, said he hopes to see some changes in the House bill that will serve to provide more safeguards for inmates who have died as a result of homicides in prison.

Continue reading "Legislators advance different prison plans while some House members seek compromise" »

March 23, 2015

House takes Senate prison reform and strips out independent oversight and penalties

Prisons Miami HeraldA 51-page prison reform bill intended to weed out abuse and corruption at the state’s troubled corrections agency has been whittled down to a modest 12 pages in the House amid quiet opposition from Gov. Rick Scott’s administration.

The House proposal, which will get a hearing on Tuesday, abandons a Senate plan (SB 7020) to require the agency to be accountable to an oversight board.

The full Senate will debate its proposal on Tuesday as well.

House leaders intend to address the state’s prison problems, documented in a series of stories in the Miami Herald, by increasing staffing levels and providing more building repairs, as has been requested by DOC Secretary Julie Jones.

“Ultimately, the governor is accountable for the actions of the secretary and the secretary is accountable for the success of the department,’’ said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, which will hear the bill, PCB CRJS 15-07, on Tuesday. “If the department is a failure, they need to search for new leadership.”

Trujillo said that while he agrees an oversight board “could be productive,” House leadership believes it could also create “a layer of bureaucracy” and so the House bill “is a work in progress.” Story here.

As brutality reigned at North Florida prison, DOC promoted officers who let it continue

James KirklandDepartment of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has vowed to "fix what needs to be fixed" at the agency that has been the focus of intense scrutiny from legislators and federal law enforcement agencies.

But Jones has also steadfastly defended the officials at DOC, including Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, who have dismissed allegations that prison officials caused or contributed to several suspicious inmate deaths.  She has denied the unexplained deaths is a "crisis" and blamed the allegations of cover-up on "disgruntled employees."

Jones also told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 2 that it was "absolutely not true" that the agency had "mismanaged inmate deaths." 

Do the facts bear this out?

An investigation by the Miami Herald into documents and testimony of current and former investigators has found that a culture of brutality was tolerated for several years at the Northwest Florida Reception Center. The prison recorded nearly 4,500 use of force reports from 2003-2013, ruled six of the 22 inmate deaths in eight years a homicide and four deaths in 2014 are under investigation.

The officials with the power to stop the brutal behavior -- wardens, assistant wardens and the inspector -- dismissed many of the allegations, the Herald found, some taking action only after federal authorities got involved. Many of those same officials have been promoted at DOC and are poised to be placed in higher positions of authority under Jones.

Here's the story by the Miami Herald's Julie K. Brown:

Few people knew the depths of terror, misery and pain inflicted upon Florida’s state prison inmates more profoundly than Capt. James Kirkland. 

During 14 years as a corrections officer, Kirkland was repeatedly accused — and not just by inmates, but by fellow corrections officers — of abusing inmates at the Northwest Florida Reception Center in Chipley. They said he contaminated inmates’ food, sprayed them with chemicals for no reason and threatened to break their fingers and to kill them, according to Florida Department of Corrections and court documents obtained by the Miami Herald.

These practices flourished under former Warden Samuel Culpepper, a tough disciplinarian brought in to clean up the troubled institution. Under Culpepper, inmates in confinement at Northwest Florida said they were stripped naked or down to their boxers at the whim of guards and had all their belongings and their mattresses taken away, then left around the clock on a cold metal bunk for 72 hours or more, with nothing to hold, not even a Bible.

DOC policy allows that to occur if an inmate in confinement — housed away from the general population — is impeding the institution’s normal operations. But inmates said the policy was taken to unheard-of extremes under Culpepper. Inmates complained that they would shiver, cold and petrified, waiting to be gassed. More here. 

Photo: Capt. James Kirkland

 

March 19, 2015

Corcoran: Time to 'downsize' prison 'monstrosity'; Democrats weigh in

Dems and prisonsThe Florida House is advancing a long-term plan to “down-size” the Florida Department of Corrections, including a yet-to-be released bill that adopts many of the reforms initiated by the Florida Senate but without the independent oversight commission that could investigate corruption.

At a news conference with House Democrats Thursday, Rep. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, said the Legislature’s Republican leadership rejected the oversight commission because they believed the agency should be better funded first.

They “felt that the Department of Corrections shouldn’t be penalized without the proper opportunity to be fully funded and if they are understaffed and overworked, how about we consider providing the staff  with the proper environment in the prison system without penalizing them with an oversight commission," he said.

Bracy and Reps. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach said, however, that they support the Senate proposal and any federal or law enforcement oversight in light of a series of stories about allegations of corruption and cover-up by agency officials.

Meanwhile, House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran told the Herald/Times Thursday that the DOC has “grown into a monstrosity” and “needs to be downsized.”

He is looking at shifting many of the responsibilities of the Department of Corrections to local sheriffs. The idea, he said, is to shift the role of probation and parole and first and second-year offenders to the local level and leave the long-term, hardened criminals to the state.

“If we do a better job of managing them, we would have less incidents of a culture of corruption and abuse," he said.

Continue reading "Corcoran: Time to 'downsize' prison 'monstrosity'; Democrats weigh in" »

DOC Secretary Julie Jones: 'What we have is a group of disgruntled employees'

Julie JonesIn an interview with National Public Radio that aired Thursday, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones continued to push back against dissenters in her agency, portraying them as a "group of disgruntled employees that do not have the best interests of the department at heart." 

Jones also dismissed reports by the Miami Herald and other news organization that have drawn attention to the spike in suspicious inmate deaths and the sharp increase in use of force incidents.

"I would submit to you, if you look at the raw numbers, it tells you, 'Oh my gosh, we have a problem,' " she told NPR. "If you drill in, the actual stats don't portray it's a crisis."

Jones told NPR the "vast majority" of the 346 deaths in 2014 were from natural causes, something that should be expected in an aging inmate population. Of the 15 deaths determined to be homicides, she said, corrections officers were involved in only three of them.

Jones has accelerated her criticism of some DOC staff as legislators have conducted surprise inspections of prisons and the Florida Senate has advanced a bill to create an independent oversight commission with the power to investigate allegations at the troubled agency.

At least seven members of the DOC inspector general's staff have lodged allegations that high-ranking officials at the agency, particularly Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, have systematically attempted to cover-up their findings of corruption and avoided attempts to seek prosecution for criminal allegations.

"We are at the point where we can no longer police ourselves,'' said John Ulm, a veteran member of the inspector general's office at the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last week. "The organized crime, the murders, the assaults, the victimization that goes on there every day is horrendous.”

Continue reading "DOC Secretary Julie Jones: 'What we have is a group of disgruntled employees'" »

March 18, 2015

Senate advances plan to create prison oversight and dedicates $6.9 million to effort

Jail Miami HeraldThe Florida Senate on Wednesday put money behind its pledge to reform the state’s troubled prison system, voting to spend $6.9 million on system changes and create an independent oversight commission that would have the power to investigate corruption and abuse.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted unanimously for the wide-ranging bill being pushed by Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, in the wake of reports of suspicious inmate deaths at the Department of Corrections, allegations of cover-ups, and claims by whistleblowers that the agency’s chief inspector general has sabotaged investigations and ignored inmate abuse.

The bill, SB 7020, would create a nine-member Florida Corrections Commission, appointed by the governor, and under the independent Justice Administrative Commission. The panel would have the power to investigate allegations of corruption, fraud, and inmate abuse, as well as review budget proposals and make policy recommendations.

The commission staff could conduct unannounced inspections of all prisons, including those operated by private prison contractors. It would do regular “security audits” focusing on the institutions with the most violent inmates. It would require specialized training for sexual abuse investigations. And it would expand gain time for inmates who complete education programs, saving the state about $1.2 million a year.

Meanwhile, the House subcommittee on Justice Appropriations has discussed the issue but has advanced no similar legislation.

The most controversial provision in the Senate bill would establish new penalties for DOC employees or employees of private prisons who “willfully or by culpable negligence” neglect an inmate or cause bodily harm. It would making injuring an inmate a felony, with a separate charge for injuring a disabled or elderly prisoner.

More here.

House bill opens door to sheriffs housing more state prisoners

Jail Miami HeraldFlorida’s sheriff-run jails would be the beneficiaries of the fallout of Florida’s troubled prison system under a bill passed unanimously Wednesday by a House committee that would allow courts to keep inmates in county jails for up to two years to avoid entering the state’s prison system. 

Under the plan, the state would pay counties up to $60 a day to house inmates with lower-level felony convictions  who have sentences that do not exceed two years. Current law allows counties to house state prisoners for only a year or less.

The proposal would apply to counties that volunteer to accept the state inmates and is likely to be used most by rural county jails, where the average daily cost is less than $60. In South Florida, where the cost to house a prisoner is more than twice what the state will pay, counties could lose money under the plan. 

“This is an experimental approach to see if we can reduce recividivsm…separate lower level offenders from the harden offenders at the state level,’’ said Rep. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, who managed the bill for the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday. “We’re trying see if this works.”

While the proposal would benefit counties, it would also cost the state an estimated $5.8 million in additional funds to send inmates who would have been housed in Florida prisons at a cost of $44 a day to the county jails which would be paid $60. 

The proposal has the support of the Florida Sheriff’s Association and drew bi-partisan support during the hearing.

“It’s an idea whose time has come,’’ said Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “I think it will save the state money, help the counties, help family support in different locations.”

He noted, however, that some county jails have eliminated drug treatment programs because of budget cuts and some of the additional money should go into restoring those programs if they are housing state inmates on drug offenses.

“This opens the door for a lot of things to happen and I’m very happy to support this bill,’’ he said. 

March 17, 2015

Judge rules that DOC 'gag order' followed the law, dismisses lawsuit

Hankinson hearingIn another blow to the inspectors at the Department of Corrections who have attempted to call attention to abuse and cover-ups in the prison system, a Tallahassee judge ruled Tuesday that the agency did not violate the law when it ordered employees to sign a new confidentiality agreement. 

Judge James C. Hankinson dismissed a lawsuit brought by Inspectors Aubrey Land, John Ulm, Stacy Harris, David Clark and Doug Glisson, who believed that the so-called gag order was intended to have a chilling effect on their ability to speak out about corruption at the troubled agency. Each of them have sought and been denied whistleblower protection by the state's Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel and last week a federal judge dismissed a whistleblower lawsuit by some of them. 

At issue was a confidentiality agreement ordered by DOC Secretary Julie Jones in February, just days after a legislative committee started an aggressive questioning of her inspector general. Jones said later that the timing was coincidental and told a House committee that the document was needed because when she arrived at the agency she was told "we have no policy and we have no confidentiality agreement.”

However, Jay Vail, the agency’s attorney entered as evidence two confidentiality agreements he said were routinely used by DOC and signed by the inspectors who brought the lawsuit. He called as a witness DOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley who testified that the department did require staff to sign the confidentiality agreements to prevent confidential information from becoming public but it was limited to those who had access to the case database system and not to the entire department.

Steven R. Andrews, lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued that rather than impose the same agreement on additional employees, Jones broadened it to include new language that defined confidential information as "not limited to confidential information as defined by law."

He said that opened the possibility that employees could be punished for releasing or discussing information that otherwise was a public record but deemed confidential because it was in a DOC file. He argued that the language allowed DOC to alter the definition of public record, something that only the Legislature can do. 

"This does not follow the law,'' Andrews said. "They can be terminated for lawful activity."

Beasley denied that the intent of the new agreement was to change the law and argued that anything that currently may be released as a public record will continue to be released as a public record. He told the court that Jones asked him to issue the new confidentiality agreement to capture a broader swath of employees in his department.

That response satisfied Hankinson who concluded that it was a “plausible interpretation” of the confidentiality agreemen and did not appear to violate the constitutional protections of the public records law, as the plaintiffs alleged.

“Clearly, the Department of Corrections cannot redefine the public records law,’’ Hankinson said after ruling against them. “I do not find that they have attempted to redefine the public records law. They can, and properly have, controlled the method in which public records are disseminated.” 

Photo: Hearing in Judge Hankinson's chambers. From left to right: DOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, DOC attorney Jay Vail, Judge Jame. C. Hankinson, plaintiff's attorney Steven R. Andrews, Andrews' partner, Brian Finnerty, Inspector John Ulm. 

March 04, 2015

Federal judge throws out whistleblower lawsuit filed by prison inspectors

via @jknipebrown

A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by five prison inspectors and a probation officer who claimed that their bosses at the Florida Department of Corrections threatened them after they tried to expose corruption and cover-ups.

The inspectors, Aubrey P. Land, David Clark, Doug Glisson, John Ulm and James Padgett — all of whom are still employed — filed the federal whistle-blower complaint in July.

Among other things, the inspectors alleged that their boss, FDOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, told them at a December 2013 Christmas party that he would “have their asses” if they didn’t back off an investigation into the death of a 27-year-old inmate they believed had been covered up.

Beasley subsequently filed an internal affairs complaint against them that accused them of misconduct. They were later exonerated.

The inspectors turned to Chief Inspector General Linda Miguel to ask for whistle-blower protection, but she declined.

More here.