May 26, 2016

Judge sides with prison whistleblower and orders a hearing

A Tallahassee judge has ruled that the Florida Department of Corrections violated the due process rights of an agency whistleblower and ordered it to conduct a special hearing to review claims of retaliation against him after he accused the chief inspector general of cover-ups.

Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson gave the agency 30 days to hold a “compliance hearing” to allow investigator Doug Glisson to demonstrate how he believes his rights under the Police Officers Bill of Rights were violated.

Glisson, a supervisor who has a 20-year career in law enforcement, was hit with six internal affairs investigations in a single day after he told members of a state Senate committee about what he suspected were instances of cover-up and abuse at the state prison agency. During the investigations, Glisson concluded that the reviews were superficial, that the officer in charge — Inspector Brian Falstrom — was biased against him, and that the goal of the investigations was to discredit him or force him out.

Glisson protested in a six-page letter to FDC Secretary Julie Jones in May 2015. He asked for a formal compliance review hearing to go over his complaints, but was rebuffed and sued the agency.

In the letter to Jones, Glisson called for Falstrom to be removed from the investigation because, according to another investigator’s sworn affidavit, Falstrom had called Glisson an “effing whistleblower.” Only after Glisson sued last fall was Falstrom removed from the case.

Dodson ruled that Glisson was entitled to the hearing, that he had no other legal remedy and that the agency erred when it claimed it did not have to grant him a hearing. Under the law, Glisson will have the right to choose two members of the five-member compliance review board. The agency will pick two and those four will pick a fifth.

FDC spokesman Alberto Moscoso said FDC was still reviewing the ruling and would have no comment.

Glisson’s attorney, Ryan Andrews, said the ruling could have broad-ranging consequences for other whistleblowers and officers who are the subject of internal affairs investigations within the department.

While this is a victory for Mr. Glisson personally and professionally, it is also a victory for all employees of the Department of Corrections. This ruling will help all employees at DOC get what they never could before when their Officers' Bill of Rights are violated,’’ he said.

The department files “hundreds of these internal affairs investigations a year and I’m not aware of them ever granting a compliance review hearing or a compliance review board in the history of the department,’’ he said. “They deny them as a matter of course, as a rubber stamp, and now they can’t do it anymore.”

Glisson is one of five FDC investigators who unsuccessfully sued the agency in 2014 after Gov. Rick Scott’s inspector general, Melinda Miguel, refused to give them special protection that would have shielded them from administrative consequences.

Glisson believes he is being punished for speaking out against former Inspector General Jeffery Beasley. He accused his former boss of improperly and unethically interfering with pending investigations.

Glisson and three others testified on March 9, 2015, before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. They alleged that Beasley shut down an investigation into the death of an inmate at Jefferson Correctional Institution, ordered investigators to cover up that a doctor who had been hired by the agency had his license revoked in another state, and ordered Glisson and another inspector to tamp down an investigation into inmate abuse by a training center director because of a “Capitol connection” — someone who had close ties to a person in Gov. Rick Scott’s office.

“Mr. Glisson has been through hell since he stood up for what he believed in and made his protected disclosures regarding the suspicious death of Randall Jordan Aparo,’’ Andrews said. “Although it has taken time, these whistleblowers will not be kept down."

Earlier this year, Jones reassigned Beasley to a newly created job as chief of intelligence. He continues to draw an annual salary of $116,500

May 11, 2016

State agrees not to close prison re-entry program at expense of work release beds

State prison officials announced Wednesday they have reached an agreement to continue a privately-run inmate transition program in Broward and Manatee counties for two more years, but the agreement comes at a cost: the closing of a work-release center for 122 inmates.

The Florida Department of Corrections notified Bridges of America last month that it would have to move out of the state-owned building that houses the inmate transition program by May 15 because the agency needed the Pompano Beach space for its probation offices. It then told the company that it would also cancel the Bradenton Bridge contract in July, forcing 84 transition inmates and 36 work-release inmates to move.

But after several state and local officials protested the moves at each facility, FDC backed down and announced Wednesday it had signed contracts to keep the Broward Bridges of America program in both locations. More here. 

May 02, 2016

Agency defends closing transition center because Broward sheriff's won't transport offenders

In the continuing saga over the Florida Department of Corrections' decision to close down a Pompano Beach inmate transition center in Broward County on May 15, the agency is directing blame at the Broward County Sheriff for contributing to the crisis. 

Their statement is based on a January letter in which the Broward County sheriff declared that beginning Feb. 1 it would "no longer absorb" the cost of transporting former inmates -- more than 500 a year -- who were violating their probation from the FDC's Lauderdale Lakes to jail. Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones responded, saying that was a violation of state law and "contrary to public safety and your statutory duty. " When Broward didn't change course, FDC started looking around for a new location to handle more than 5600 offenders on probation in the county. 

FDC now says it found its solution in Pompano Beach -- in the state building that now houses 172 inmates at the successful Bridges of America transition program.

Judging by the chain of emails and documents obtained by the Herald/Times, by deciding to close the Pompano Bridges of America transition center and using it to house the agency's consolidated probation office, FDC dealt with one problem by creating another. It dealt with the Broward Sheriff's Office by sending a conflicting message on its commitment to inmate re-entry programs. 

Bridges of America held a second press conference in two weeks Monday to keep the pressure on FDC to reverse its decision. This time, Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, blasted the department for misleading him about the need to transfer the budget for the Bridges' program - which is run in from a state building where it pays no rent -- from the institutions budget to the programs budget, because he believed it might be less likely closed to make room for other programs. 

"This past session, I was afraid for this program,'' he said. But he said he was told by FDC staff "there was no need" to transfer the program to a different part of the budget. "I was lied to," he said.

Dominic Calabro of TaxWatch chided the agency for closing a program that saves taxpayer money by reducing recidivism. 

And Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the incoming chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told the Herald/Times that while he has not spoken with Bridges of America CEO Lori Constatino-Brown about the issue, and hasn't "made a decision to try to help her yet."

But, Latvala said, "if the Legislature makes a decision that we're going to fund re-entry programs, they ought to be funded. In this particular case, the Legislature made a decision." 

There are lots of unanswered questions here and, judging by the answers from FDC, things just keep getting murkier.

It's clear the agency knew it was going to have a problem with its probation offices in January, when it was warned that the Broward sheriff wouldn't transport probation violators to jail. Did it ask the Legislature for help in finding a new facility or did it plan all along to target Bridges and use it as an opportunity to close down the facility of the private provider? Is there another private provider lining up to take the business or will FDC reduce the re-entry efforts? 

The agency has been unable to provide any evidence that it is not going to decrease the net number of re-entry positions with the closing of Bridges. When asked, FDC offers no explanation for how it will be replacing the 172 lost positions with additional positions at other facilities. 

Here's a timeline of what we know to date:

Continue reading "Agency defends closing transition center because Broward sheriff's won't transport offenders" »

April 28, 2016

Four more lawmakers copy and paste plea to prisons chief not to shut down Broward transition program

In a bi-partisan push -- and a shared ghost writer -- three Orlando-based state representatives and one from Ocala added their voices to the chorus of opposition to the Florida Department of Corrections' decision to close down the Broward-based Bridges of America work release and transition program for inmates at the end of their sentence. 

Reps. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, Rene Plascencia, R-Orlando, Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando and Victor Torres, D-Orlando, sent identical letters to Corrections Secretary Julie Jones on Wednesday urging her not to close down the facility that is run by the Bridges of America organization, which is based in Orlando. 

Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, also sent a letter with the same word-for-word plea but she also included a scolding of Jones for reducing the overall number of transition beds, rejected Jones' promise that the inmates will be accommodated in other parts of the state, and suggested it was an about-face from the commitment Jones has made to legislators when she was confirmed by the Senate earlier this year. 

Bridges has filed a administrative law challenges against the action and FDC spokesman McKinley Lewis said he could not comment on a pending legal matter. 

Here is our post on Young. Here are the letters and the boilerplate from them:  Download Letter_RepTorresDownload Letter of Spport for Bridges of America_PlasenciaDownload Bridges.Baxley,   Download Letter_Bridges of A_Bracy:

It has come to my attention that the Department intends to close the Pompano Work Release/Program Center in Broward County (the “Broward (Pompano) SATREC Program) in order to utilize the facilities for more office space. I, along with many of my colleagues in the Florida Legislature, am a strong proponent of these types of facilities and programs, believing that our best chance to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety is to release rehabilitated, treated, and well-prepared inmates back into our communities following their sentences.

Further, I have come to believe that community-based providers do an extraordinary job in partnering with the State to accomplish these goals. Madame Secretary, I urge you not to shut down this vital program. Understanding the important role you play as Secretary in ensuring the safety of our State and the rehabilitation of our inmates, I hope you will agree that a decision as drastic as to close down such a facility is one worth discussing and vetting with key stakeholders. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

 

Rep. Dana Young blasts Corrections for closing Broward prison program as 'rushed and not well thought out'

State Rep. Dana Young, a Tampa Republican, is scolding the Florida Department of Corrections for "the very abrupt change-of-course" when it decided last week to close an inmate transition center in Pompano Beach and wants the decision delayed or reversed.

"The very abrupt change-of-course on the Broward facility seems rushed and not well thought out,'' Young said in a letter to Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones. She chided the decision for reducing the overall number of transition beds, rejected Jones' promise that the inmates will be accommodated in other parts of the state and suggested it was an about-face from the commitment Jones has made to legislators when she was confirmed by the Senate earlier this year.

"The idea that you would cease a successful re-entry program to make way for offices that can easily be accommodated elsewhere is untenable,'' Young concluded.

Jones said in a statement this week that the agency needed to close the Bridges of America work release and re-entry program to make room for a moving their probation office from Lauderdale Lakes to the Pompano facility. Jones vowed that “no action taken by this Department will negatively affect the future of the inmates currently incarcerated at Broward Bridge."

The decision came after the agency issued requests for proposals for private operators to run the program to help inmates transition back into the community at the Pompano facility in March. The Bridges lease is up on May 16 and when the FDC called for rates  to be reduced from $56 a day to $52 a day, Bridges of America was the only one to respond. 

But Young said lawmakers are "troubled" by the decision and believe the re-entry and work release transition programs are "our best chance to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety is to release rehabilitated, treated, and well-prepared inmates back into our communities following their sentences."

"If indeed such a crisis existed in terms of office space, as your recent public statement suggests, why was the legislature not notified?,'' Young asked.

She even suggested Jones has options. "If, as you contend, the Department needs more office space, I would encourage you to seek appropriate space to lease. In the alternative, portable office units or the like may be an option until such time as you can find suitable space,'' she wrote.

Young also took Jones to task for changing her story, urged her to keep the program open "or, at a minimum, to delay such a move so that it can be properly vetted with stakeholders and the Legislature" and asked her to "provide your rationale for this decision." 

"In comments before the Senate in recent confirmation hearings and in other public venues you stressed the importance of reentry, work release, and transitional services as part of the Department 'embracing a new methodology that focuses on rehabilitation' with the goal of 'reducing the prison population,' '' Young wrote.

"Additionally, last November you announced a pilot program focused on data compilation and better understanding the needs/diagnoses of inmates at time of entry and reentry that began in March of this year. The decision to shut down a proven reentry facility appears premature and in direct opposition to your stated priorities by effectively choosing office space over direct services that have a proven track record of enhancing public safety and reducing recidivism. Here's her letter:  Download Dana Young Letter to FDOC

 

April 25, 2016

Fla. Department of Corrections wants to close Broward inmate work center to make space for offices

The 182 men living at the Bridges of America work release center in Pompano Beach are in prison but they spend their time getting ready to leave — taking classes in things like addiction education, anger management, forklift certification, computer basics, the ABCs of finance and getting out on work-release to hold a job.

It’s one of about 34 minimum-security “community release” centers operated by the Florida Department of Corrections, and one of the programs FDC Secretary Julie Jones has testified is critical to keeping former felons from returning to prison.

But last week the privately-run non-profit Bridges of America program was told it must close down by May 16. The reason: The state agency needs the office space.

The owners and supporters of the Broward-based center were stunned. The lease for the Pompano facility was up on May 16 and when the FDC issued its requests for proposals to renew the contract in March — at rates reduced from $52 a day to $56 a day — Bridges of America was the only one to respond.

But rather than follow through with contract, FDC last week reversed course and said it needed the facility to house its probation office, which is seeking new space.

“No action taken by this Department will negatively affect the future of the inmates currently incarcerated at Broward Bridge,’’ Jones said in a press release on Monday. “Opportunities will be made available for these individuals to continue in their journey to rehabilitation and successful transition into Florida’s communities.”

Owners and supporters of the non-profit organization are pushing back. They held a press conference Monday voicing their support for the program and urging community groups and legislators to tell FDC to keep it open.

“The facility has taught me everything I need to know about the disease of addiction,” Arthur Keene, a former inmate who attended the Bridges program, said at a press conference outside the Pompano facility. “It would be a great injustice if this place were to close down.”

William Meyer, who runs a transport company, said his two top employees are former Bridges clients who now have jobs and tell their story to others. “It’s going to be a real sad day because everybody deserves a second chance,” he said.

Lori Costantino-Brown, Bridges CEO, told the Herald/Times she believes the decision by the agency “just seems arbitrary.”

“The department has never mentioned this need for this kind of space. It has a number of properties in this area and could very easily put offices elsewhere. It’s not necessary for them to shut down a reentry center. That’s a very poor decision on the department’s part.”

Corrections officials have tried to negotiate. Constantino-Brown said they offered to give the company a six-month extension on its contract at its Bradenton facility, which expires in July, if they stopped contesting the Broward closing.

“The only offer we had from the department is contingent on us throwing out any claim on Broward,’’ she said. “Now we find ourselves in a precarious position in both centers.”

Costantino-Brown is now also prepared to go to court. Language tucked every year into the state budget requires the Department of Corrections to give 60-day notices to the governor and lawmakers when they repurpose a prison. That didn’t happen, and Constantino-Brown said she will ask a court to halt the closing because of it.

Jones said in her press release that her agency had no choice.

“Currently, FDC operates six probation offices in a single building complex in Lauderdale Lakes,” she wrote. “Earlier this year, the Department was notified by members of the Lauderdale Lakes City Council that an ordinance would be proposed which will re-zone the address at which our probation offices currently operate. This issue is one that the Department has faced time and time again in communities around our state.

“To overcome this obstacle and continue to provide services which are an operational imperative for this agency, the Department plans to relocate a portion of our probation offices, which serve more than 5,600 offenders, to the state-owned building currently occupied by Broward Bridge. A transition plan has been formulated which will ensure a smooth transition for work release, substance abuse treatment and probation services.”

This is the second time in four years that Bridges of America believes it has been singled out by the agency. The same two facilities were scheduled to close in 2012 when the then deficit-plagued corrections department attempted to close an estimated $79 million budget hole by shuttering two the reentry centers in Pompano Beach and Bradenton.

Costantino-Brown agreed to close some beds and make other concessions, and the facilities remain open. Then, as now, Costantino-Brown was a vocal critic of the need for reform in the state’s prison system. Supporters say she has been a successful advocate for civil justice movements seeking sentencing reform. Critics say she is motivated by efforts to privatize more state prison programs.

“Clearly, the repeated articles in the newspaper show a very troubled department,” she said. “I’m not sure why they’re doing the things that they’re doing. Corrections doesn’t historically value programs — they never have, regardless of what they publicly say. Their actions speak differently.”

 

April 23, 2016

Prison whistleblower alleges in court documents retaliation still underway at state Department of Corrections

Doug GlissonWeeks after a Department of Corrections inspector privately told members of a state Senate committee about what he suspected was cover-up and abuse at the state prison agency last year, he was hit with six internal investigations in a single day, all aimed at discrediting him or forcing him out.

The unprecedented number of investigations gave grounds for the agency to reassign the investigator, Doug Glisson, move his office to what agency staff calls a former broom closet, take away access to his past emails and work files, and then conduct an investigation that lasted months — without interviewing alleged witnesses or verifying many facts.

When Glisson, a supervisor who has a 20-year career in law enforcement, protested in a six-page letter to his supervisors, he was subjected to a verbal tirade from Inspector Brian Falstrom so loud and filled with invective that it scared the other office staff who overhead it all.

“It was very scary for me,” said Stephanie Land, who worked in the office next to Glisson in the agency's Office of Internal Audits. “He yelled a lot.”

When asked in court if she was in “fear of being retaliated against” because of her testimony, she responded: “A little, yeah.”

The extent of the Department of Corrections’ alleged retaliation against one of five whistle-blowers has come to light in detailed transcripts and documents filed as part of an ongoing legal fight in a Tallahassee court.

Glisson is suing the agency, seeking a formal review process in which he alleges his rights have been violated. Story here. 

Photo: Department of Corrections Inspector Doug Glisson testified March 9, 2015 before Senate Criminal Justice Committee, by Mary Ellen Klas, Miami Herald

April 19, 2016

Teamsters say they will file unfair labor practices charge against Department of Corrections

Teamsters Local 2011, which represents an estimated 1,000 of the more than 16,000 corrections and probations officers, said Tuesday it is in the process of filing an unfair labor practice charge against the Florida Department of Corrections to protest a policy that allows the agency to fire prison guards and probation officers without cause. 

The union, which is under fire from the rival union the Police Benevolent Association, has been at an impasse in negotiations with the agency over a new labor contract, which expires on June 30. The Teamsters say the Florida Legislature rejected their request to exempt them from a state law that allows newly-hired or newly promoted employees who are on a one-year probationary status from being fired. The Teamsters argue the rule allowed the agency to "fire an officer without cause" without access to the grievance or mediation process.  

The department would not comment on the pending dispute, said spokesman McKinley Lewis.

Matt Puckett of the PBA confirmed Tuesday that his union is aggressively pursuing the labor contract to replace the Teamsters in representing the FDC officers. The PBA previously had the contract but lost it. Last year, it notified the agency that it is seeking petitions and has conducted a survey of officers gauging their interest on switching unions. 

"We're going to run a campaign,'' Puckett said. 

Meanwhile, as the fate of the state's corrections officers has been the focus of numerous news reports and critical audits in the last year, the Teamsters have been all but silent.

The Miami Herald's series "Cruel and Unusual" and "Beyond Punishment" uncovered inmate abuse, increases in use of force by officers against inmates, and cover-ups of abusive behavior by prison officials. Three independent audits, including one financed by the Florida Legislature, described dangerously low staffing levels at all state prisons, 12- and 16-hour work shifts, unsafe working conditions, and a culture that conditioned officers to augment their pay with overtime and illegal smuggling of contraband into prison facilities. 

Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has said that the agency loses about 1,400 officers a year because of poor working conditions and low pay. She acknowledged that, as a result, violent incidents involving inmates and staff have escalated, and contraband is at an all time high. In the last year, Jones also fired or forced 1,080 corrections officers or staff to resign, 279 more than the year before.

During the session, Jones asked lawmakers to finance the addition of 734 additional officers to allow the agency to transition from 12-hour shifts to eight-hour shifts. The Legislature rejected that request but did give Jones $12.5 million to hire 215 additional officers. Jones now says that -- through some accounting shifts including filling jobs she kept vacant to pay for overtime -- she will be able to fill 4,000 positions, including those lost because of attrition. 

Throughout the debate, the Teamsters negotiated its contract but never publicly called for a change in working conditions or salaries. On Tuesday, the Teamsters said they will protest the contract imposed by the Legislature as it relates to firing officers.

The language that the state of Florida has forced into the contract penalizes correctional and probation officers by taking away their union protection should they be unable to perform new duties after a job promotion, and allows the FDOC to fire an officer without reason and without the ability to challenge the termination through the grievance and arbitration process,” said Ken Wood, Teamsters International Vice President in a statement.

“This discourages officers from applying for a promotion – thinking that if they are promoted, they are at risk of losing their entire careers for up to one year without any reason,” Wood said. “Our men and women, who work hard every day, deserve to maintain their union representation and protections. Therefore, it is essential for the Teamsters Local 2011 to consider filing an unfair labor practice with the Florida Public Employees Commission to protect officers and their rights under Chapter 447 of the Florida statutes.”

April 12, 2016

Inmate's family sues Florida Department of Corrections and Wexford alleging brutal beating, then neglect

via @JKnipeBrown

Exactly two years to the day that inmate Matthew Walker was killed by officers at Charlotte Correctional Institution, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed on Monday against the state, alleging that the Florida prison system and its private health care company were responsible for Walker’s death.

Walker, 46, was killed April 11, 2014 during a clash with officers, who had roused him in the middle of the night to order him to pick up a cup and a magazine he left out in his cell.

Last year, a Charlotte County grand jury said it was clear that the confrontation with the 6-2, 250-pound Walker was brought on by commanders at the Punta Gorda prison, who authorized a policy of waking prisoners, simply to "harass and aggravate them." When the prisoners inevitably became agitated, the officers were ready to punish them by forcing them into confinement — separated from the prison population —and if they resisted, the inmates would be gassed and restrained.

In Walker’s case, evidence showed that when the inmate refused to comply, the officers successfully restrained him, but continued to beat him with radios and stomp on his head with their boots until his throat was crushed and he couldn’t breathe. Story here.

 

April 07, 2016

State hires Miami native, a federal inspector general, as new prisons watchdog

by @JknipeBrown

A new watchdog has been hired to oversee Florida’s troubled Department of Corrections, which has been mired in lawsuits, federal probes and accusations of corruption and brutality against inmates for years.

Lester Fernandez, the assistant inspector general for the federal Office of Labor Racketeering and Fraud in Washington, D.C., will start his new post on June 6. As FDC’s inspector general, he will oversee all probes into wrongdoing in the prisons. He will also work with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigates in-custody deaths, and the U.S. Department of Justice, which has been looking into whether the agency has a pattern or practice of civil rights violations.

Last year, FDC had more than 350 prisoner deaths, a record. Incidents involving use of force, between officers and inmates, has more than doubled in the past five years, and human rights groups contend the agency has committed abuses against inmates in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Story here.