In a blistering condemnation of Florida's prison system, several current and former prison inspectors told state lawmakers on Tuesday that they were repeatedly ordered to ignore evidence of crimes committed by corrupt officials because doing so would give the Department of Corrections a “black eye.”
Three inspectors and one former inspector, speaking publicly for the first time, testified under oath about interference by unnamed agency officials as they attempted to weed out inmate abuse, medical neglect, gang violence and organized crime.
In testimony before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, the inspectors cited cases where they were told to withhold information from prosecutors, to close investigations into staffers who were politically connected and to avoid bringing criminal charges no matter how much evidence they had.
“We are at the point where we can no longer police ourselves,” said John Ulm, a veteran law enforcement officer who works in the Inspector General’s Office.
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Ulm and others reported that after being told to back off cases, they sometimes pursued them anyway because the misconduct was so blatant they couldn’t ignore it. Afterward, they said they were threatened or retaliated against by their bosses in the Inspector General’s Office, which is led by Jeffery Beasley.
Ulm’s lawyer, for example, has said that Ulm was briefly ordered to clean out his office in September, four days after the Miami Herald published a story about how he and a group of other veteran DOC investigators had uncovered possible criminal wrongdoing — and a cover-up — in the death of Randall Jordan-Aparo. The 27-year-old prisoner was found dead after being repeatedly gassed by guards in an isolation cell at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010. The inspectors found evidence that corrections officers and others had submitted fabricated reports to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigated the death.
“We can’t do it alone. We need some oversight,’’ said Ulm. “The organized crime, the murders, the assaults, the victimization that goes on there every day is horrendous.”
Ulm, who was told in September that he was being transferred and getting a pay cut, was subsequently reinstated, but has since faced internal affairs investigations.
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones dismissed the inspectors’ testimony, saying it “represents one view of several incidents that happened years ago.’’
While she said the cases the inspectors testified about “when appropriate, were presented to the State Attorney’s Office for prosecution,’’ the inspectors testified that the opposite was true.
Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison, a former DOC inspector, said that during the two years he worked in the Inspector General’s Office, he was told twice not to pursue cases despite his belief that they could result in criminal charges.
In one case, he said “upper-level management” told him not to bring allegations to a state attorney regarding a warden and assistant warden at Calhoun Correctional Institution suspected of intimidating a witness in a case involving contraband being smuggled into the facility.
In another case, at Jackson Correctional Institution, alleged medical neglect by a nurse resulted in “two inmates almost losing their lives,” but the charges were “covered up,’’ Harrison said, “based on a relationship that the warden was having with the nurse.”
In an interview with the Herald/Times last week, Jones asserted that employees making the claims about cover-ups are exceeding their authority, trying to function as if they are FDLE investigators.
“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."
But the family member of an inmate who died under suspicious circumstances in 2013 said too many prisoners are dying or filing abuse grievances to dismiss the current testimony as the random gripes of a few frustrated investigators.
“These investigators can no longer be silent. Somebody has to stand up. Somebody has to tell the truth,” said Naomi Washington. “Whatever wrongs that people have done, they will not get away with it because God is the final judge.’’
Washington’s brother, Jerry Washington of Fort Lauderdale, died in 2013 at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, shortly after he wrote his family telling them his life was being threatened by corrections officers. She suspects that her brother, whose death was attributed to a drug overdose, was poisoned by the staff.
Senate Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, said Tuesday’s testimony may have been the panel’s last chance to air out the agency’s problems during the two-month legislative session. He suggested that Jones and Beasley’s office were “dragging their feet” in their promises to reform the agency.
It may be time for a special legislative committee to be assembled to further investigate the claims of employees, he said.
Evers reminded his colleagues that Jones had pledged the week before that if anyone from her department wanted to appear before them, those employees would not be punished for their testimony. In recent months, she had ordered inspectors and others to sign “confidentiality agreements’’ that prohibit them from talking about their cases under threat of losing their jobs.
“Apparently we can stumble across more than what the investigations have found in the past few years by just asking the questions of the right people,’’ Evers said after the hearing. “Yes, we've got a crisis.”
Jones has acknowledged that the agency has been chronically underfunded and understaffed but has repeatedly defended Beasley, who is hired by the Chief Inspector General but reports to the DOC secretary.
The unprecedented testimony came amid a series of reports on the suspicious deaths of inmates and a public outcry by civil rights groups over the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.
Inspector Aubrey Land said that while there are untold numbers of good corrections officers in the prison system, the culture of corruption along with staff shortages has made it difficult for them to do their jobs adequately.
“We have offered up solutions that no one listens to,” Land said.
Doug Glisson, a supervisor in the Inspector General's Office, testified that he was told to close a case against a staffer who had a “Capitol connection,’’ meaning a high-ranking friend in the state Capitol.
“There was a clear message there, and it’s had a chilling effect,” he said.
Jones said last week that she has spoken with Beasley about the concerns Evers has expressed about the Inspector General’s Office, and that she is working on implementing changes.
She said she agrees with critics that in some prisons the inspectors assigned to investigations are too close to the staff working there.
“We have circumstances where we do have individuals who have grown up in an institution and now are in a role to investigate their peers,’’ she told the Herald/Times. “That is not good.”
But she added there are too many individuals who want to just do “the big stuff” and not enough who want to do the “day-to-day minding the shop.”
That message might make sense at an agency where corruption and abuse are under control, Land said, but in Florida’s prisons the approach is “too little, too late.”
Former DOC Secretary James McDonough, a retired Army colonel who served under Gov. Jeb Bush, said the agency is in need of “leadership that is strong and true and not afraid to choose the harder right over the easier wrong.”
McDonough, often credited with initiating reforms during his 2006-2008 tenure, said lawmakers can guide and support reforms, but strong leaders are needed at DOC to implement them.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and@MaryEllenKlas