Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones sent out an internal memo last week ordering all investigators working in the state’s inspector general’s office to sign confidentiality agreements by February 19th. The documents to be signed, described by the Miami Herald as a “virtual gag order”, will ban inspectors from discussing any Florida DOC investigations, even cases that have been closed and are public record, to “outsiders” including legislators. Employees in violation face termination.
McKinley Lewis, the spokesman for Florida DOC, said the documents are “basic, normal forms that tell people to follow the law” and part of a larger effort to “fix many things in the department.”
“It’s not to silence anybody or anything crazy like that,” Lewis said. “It’s just to make sure everyone is following the law.” Lewis noted that state law currently prohibits the release of information that is not a public record by current and former employees.
“This right here is a slap in my face,’’ said Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker) and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “I have not asked the IG for a copy of anything that should not be a public record and I am repulsed to think he would send out a letter to his staff not to release information that would be in the sunshine otherwise,” he said.
Ron McAndrew, a retired Florida prison warden and prison consultant, said that the new policy is a “scare technique, that they are saying ‘We will put the fear of God in everybody and threaten their jobs.” McAndrew considered the possibility that the policy is aimed at intimidating investigators who wish to speak out about prison corruption and abuse in light of media reports describing alleged Florida DOC abuses and cover-ups.
Florida’s prison system, specifically in regards to use-of-force incidents and failure to follow up on allegations of abuse and suspicious inmate deaths, has been under increased criticism as local media has uncovered several incidences of questionable inmate assaults or deaths followed by prolonged investigations offering little closure. Jones implemented the policy days after a Senate Committee on Criminal Justice meeting where she addressed several issues within the DOC and asserted that “all life is precious and not one death in our facility goes without scrutiny.”
“In recent months the Department of Corrections and the Office of the Inspector General have been criticized for mismanagement of inmate deaths. This is absolutely not true,” Jones said at the meeting.
Jones’s assertion contradicts the findings of several investigations performed by the Miami Herald:
In several suspicious death cases, the DOC’s inspectors failed to act on grievances and warnings from other inmates, stalled investigations or allowed them to remain open indefinitely. Officers accused of questionable behavior — such as repeatedly gassing inmates and explaining their actions in virtual copy-and-paste incident reports — were often not disciplined and, sometimes, promoted. And when people tried to go above the DOC to complain to Gov. Rick Scott’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, those complaints were sometimes relayed back to the DOC inspector general, only to be dismissed.
Questions remain in the cases of several Florida inmate deaths. In October of last year, Lowell Correctional Institution inmate Latandra Ellington was found dead shortly after writing to her family stating that a correctional officer was going to “beat me to death.” Ellington’s body was discovered a day after being placed in administrative custody once her family relayed the information to the prison. An independent autopsy found Ellington had suffered abdominal hemorrhaging “consistent with punches and kicks.” The investigation into her death is still open.
The death of mentally disabled Dade Correctional Institution Transitional Care Unit inmate Darren Rainey in June 2012 was followed by a lengthy yet incomplete investigation. Rainey was found dead in a shower after spending hours locked in a scalding shower that had burned off his skin. The investigation did not seek to find out why Rainey had been placed in the shower for such a length of time and no one chose to interview an inmate who requested to discuss instructions he had been given to clean up the shower along with removing pieces of Rainey’s flesh after the incident. Harold Hempstead, another inmate at TCU, had filed a grievance stating that the showers had been rigged to cause pain to the mentally disabled inmates that are housed there. Rainey’s case remains open.
In August 2013, Dade inmate Richard Mair had written to the DOC inspector general, the warden at Dade, and Gov. Rick Scott claiming that officers in Dade’s mental health unit were sexually abusing inmates. The inspector general closed the investigation after a month after saying that Mair’s accusations were unsubstantiated. Mair was later found hanging in his cell. His body was found with a list in his pocket providing names of guards who had “forced inmates to perform sex acts, gambled on duty, stole inmate property” and forced white and black inmates to fight. Mair had previously said that he was threatened by guards and was afraid he would be killed if he named them. Mair’s death was ruled a suicide without interviewing or investigating correctional officers about Mair’s allegations.
A 2013 investigation into the 2010 death of Franklin Correctional Institution Randall Jordan-Aparo revealed that the medical examiner’s ruling of death from natural causes was inaccurate. What was originally described as a “debilitating lung condition” turned out to be officers repeatedly blasting Jordan-Aparo with tear gas and pepper spray and lying about it in their reports. The senior investigators also found that video evidence, showing that the gassing of Jordan-Aparo was unwarranted, had not been given to Florida law enforcement or the medical examiner by the DOC investigators originally assigned to the case. Jordan-Aparo’s case has since been re-opened. The senior investigators who discovered problems in the initial investigation- Aubrey Land, John Ulm and Doug Glissom- say they were denied whistle-blower protection by Gov. Rick Scott’s Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel.
In 2014 there were 346 reported inmate deaths in correctional facilities across Florida; 178 of those deaths are under pending status, indicating that the medical examiner has not provided their conclusions to the DOC. In 2015 there have been 34 deaths, with 33 of those deaths under pending status.