In 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.”
The suit was dismissed by a federal judge but is on appeal.
Jones told the Miami Herald that she believes the complaints are a reaction to the frustration the inspectors have that they are not supposed to pursue criminal charges, a role she believes is better handled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
"We have a problem with certain individuals in the IGs office that want to be FDLE agents,” she said. “They are not FDLE agents. They are not trained to be criminal investigators – to delve into corruption and the individuals that we’ve hired could be qualified to be criminal investigators but that is not their role. If we have wholesale corruption in a facility, I would ask FDLE to come in because they are subject matter experts on those particular roles."
She said that "some individuals...don’t want to do the day-to-day minding the shop and looking for those individual,'' she said. "The more of the small stuff that you do, systemic issues in a facility, so they don’t become big things, the fewer big things you have.
But Julie Mader, a former senior inspector at Jackson Correctional Institution who left last year after Beasley would not seek criminal charges against prison staff for allegedly covering up inmate neglect, said that Jones' approach is an about-face in agency policy. She said that for years the only inspectors at the agency who were promoted were those who had been trained to be criminal investigators, who had received law enforcement certifications, and who aggressively applied law enforcement standards to their investigations.
"If you wanted to be anything you knew you had to be a LEO,'' she told the Herald/Times, referring to Law Enforcement Officer.
Jones, however, said that she believes the more appropriate approach is for DOC inspectors to alert their supervisors to a potential criminal issue, and have it referred to FDLE for investigation.
“Their job is not to pick and choose," Jones said. "They need to work through their chain of command. I’m afraid that you’re speaking to a smaller subset of people that don’t have the bigger picture.”
However, Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison, a former DOC inspector, told the Senate committee that during the two years he worked in the inspector general’s office he was told twice not to pursue cases which he believed could sustain potential criminal charges.
In one case, he said “upper level management” told him not to bring allegations to a state attorney that a warden and assistant warden at Calhoun Correctional Institution were getting paid for allowing contraband into the facility.
In the case at Jackson Correctional Institution that Mader also investigated, Harrison said the allegations of medical neglect by a nurse resulted in “two inmates almost losing their lives.” He said the charges were “covered up based on a relationship that the warden was having with the nurse.”
The warden and the nurse later admitted to the affair, according to court records, but the cover-up never was prosecuted.