The chairman of a key legislative committee and an entourage of Senate staffers dropped in for an evening of surprise inspections at two of North Florida’s troubled prisons late Thursday.
The initial findings after touring Suwannee Correctional and Jefferson Correctional: dormitories that had been abandoned because of leaking roofs, facilities dependent on community donations for supplies and dangerously low staffing levels at the prisons.
“I’m sorry to be the only fool who has taken it on himself to check it out, but I don’t like dog-and-pony shows,’’ said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, in an interview with the Herald/Times.
He said he decided he needed to conduct the surprise inspections to “get to the bottom of what needs to be done at the Department of Corrections” after a series of reports in the Miami Herald called attention to a record number of inmate deaths and allegations of cover-ups by officials involved.
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He said he relied on a state statute that authorizes visits by legislators, governors, judges, Cabinet officials and states attorneys, and brought along his staff to chronicle the experience.
The reaction from the close-knit prison establishment: complete surprise.
“A Senator or Representative, touring a State Correctional facility, after hours, is unheard of,’’ wrote Samuel Culpepper, director of prisons for Region 1 in North Florida, in an email message to wardens on Friday morning. “We’re in a new day and a new time.”
Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, chairman of the House budget subcommittee that will oversee prison appropriations, visited Wakulla Correctional Thursday morning, though that visit was pre-scheduled.
“The message here is very simple,’’ Culpepper warned his wardens. “Every moment of every day is inspection day. We should always be prepared.”
Evers arrived at Suwannee Correctional Facility, located in Live Oak, just west of Lake City, at 5:15 p.m. accompanied by his legislative aide, Senate general counsel George Levesque and three staff members from the criminal justice and appropriations committees.
Suwannee Correctional was the site of an October 2013 riot by inmates who attacked five guards. In April 2014, Shawn Gooden, 33, died under mysterious circumstances at the prison, and his death is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Inmates there have long complained of violence, abuse and corruption. In July, the Miami Herald confirmed that an FBI investigation is ongoing at the prison.
After the unannounced tour of Suwannee, the group traveled west to Jefferson Correctional Institution, about an hour away, for a surprise visit that began at 10:07 p.m.
“When the wardens finally showed up because they were instructed that we were there, they allowed us to talk to officers, get their input, and I thought it was a real worthwhile opportunity to actually see what goes on at a prison at night,’’ Evers said.
He said he saw prisons that were clean and calm, but the conditions frightened him.
Evers said he observed “staffing levels that were stretched very, very thin in critical areas,” adding that one officer in a control room and two guards roaming a pod did not seem sufficient to contain trouble if it occurred.
“You don’t have the appropriate amount of staff to handle it,” he said.
The facilities were using televisions donated by the community “and if a TV goes down, you have a lot of folks that are very upset, and that makes it harder to control and becomes a safety issue,” Evers added.
Also, the lawmaker noted, he saw inmate dormitories “that had to be abandoned because of roofs with water coming in.”
Evers said he concluded that the conditions clearly contribute to a prison culture that has increasingly relied on use-of-force as a disciplinary tactic “and inmates are aware of that.”
“I haven’t gotten to the heart of what I wanted to find, but it gave me an opportunity to talk one on one with corrections officers about their jobs,’’ he said.
In his memo to wardens, Culpepper said he expects more surprise inspections and that the department’s “Office of Legislative Affairs is working on talking points so we can have a consistent voice regarding our needs.”
Among them, Culpepper said, is the need for more staffing, pay raises, physical plant repairs and vehicle upgrades. “Whatever they say needs to be factual,’’ he advised. “Quoting erroneous information will hurt any good information we provide.”
Evers scoffed at the call for “talking points” and attempts at corrections officials to control the message.
“I’ve heard the talking points,’’ he said. “It’s when you get a corrections officer somewhere where he can speak very freely [that] you get the whole story. You don’t get talking points. You get honesty and I believe honesty will make the difference in our corrections system.”