Miami-Dade County

Florida prison guards fight firings

Randall Johnson
Randall Johnson

Randall Johnson was among 32 corrections officers terminated in an unprecedented flurry of firings three weeks ago that Corrections Secretary Michael Crews heralded as an effort to root out bad prison guards linked to corruption or abuse.

Johnson was told in his dismissal letter that he was fired because he used excessive force that led to the death of a 27-year-old inmate who was repeatedly gassed while in solitary confinement at Franklin Correctional Institution.

There’s only one problem with Johnson’s firing. Johnson says he was at Disney World that day — Sept. 19, 2010 — and can prove it.

He and his attorney say they have the receipts, the cellphone records — even a copy of the prison roster — backing his account.

“I’ve never been in trouble for nothing, other than being sick and not bringing in a doctor’s note,” said Johnson, 26.

Johnson and more than two dozen colleagues were fired in what union leaders and labor lawyers are calling a “political stunt.”

They claim they were dumped prematurely without due process, and that, in many cases, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was still investigating the incidents that cost them their jobs.

Appeals have been filed on behalf of many of the officers jettisoned on Sept. 19, most in connection with inmate deaths or alleged excessive force against prisoners.

At the time of the purge, the Miami Herald requested personnel documents related to the firings. DOC spokeswoman Jessica Cary said they were not available.

To date, the DOC has provided only the dismissal letters, which do not detail what role, if any, the officers played.

Maria Kazouris, who represents two of nine guards fired from Charlotte Correctional Institution, said the state violated state and federal laws that give citizens the right to due process and the presumption of innocence.

“Essentially what they’ve done is place a blanket of guilt over any and all the people present and said, ‘Look, we’ve held you all accountable — good luck figuring out how to prove you’re innocent,’” she said.

The officers at Charlotte were dismissed in connection with the April 11 death of Matthew Walker, whose case is still being probed by the FDLE.

All of the Charlotte guards, including a 62-year-old officer who was allegedly knocked unconscious during the clash with Walker, are seeking to be rehired. They claim they were following a policy that had just been instituted by management.

“They work these officers 16 out of every 24 hours. That’s a whole lot of extra hours. You are designing a disaster. ... When you go to work tired, things like this are going to happen. Walker ended up dead. A sergeant ended up trampled. Another officer was sprayed in the face with pepper spray,” Kazouris said.

“If they were not so tired on a day-to-day basis, their response would be more considered, more immediate and with less injuries to all parties, whether inmates or officers,” she said.

In announcing the firings, Crews said they were part of his strict “zero tolerance’’ policy for employee misconduct.

But the timing of Crews’ announcement has been questioned. It came amid a series of Herald stories about the suspicious deaths of inmates, some of them initially ruled natural or accidental.

Randall Jordan-Aparo suffered from a rare, genetic blood-vessel disorder. He’d had a fever for days and was begging to be hospitalized when he was gassed for creating a disturbance, records show.

His death was ruled natural, largely because FDLE, the medical examiner and DOC investigators either ignored or failed to review key evidence in the death, including the video, the audio and the photographs of the inmate in his cell, which show he was coated with chemical residue. The alleged mishandling of the case was discovered in 2013 by four DOC inspectors who went to the prison to investigate unrelated crimes.

In July, the inspectors filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit against the state and DOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, claiming that Beasley pressured them to keep quiet about what they had found.

Somehow, Johnson’s name got swept up with the names of three others who were identified as being involved in the death. Johnson said that had DOC investigators done their job from the outset they would have found out that he wasn’t at work. He said he was never told why he was suspended and, therefore, was never given the opportunity to defend himself by providing his receipts and cellphone records.

He said he first heard about the death while riding home from Orlando with his brother. His brother got a phone call.

“I have all the evidence in the world that I wasn’t there,’’ he said.

He said others who were working that night and involved in the events were never disciplined.

“It was their responsibility to do a check [on the inmate] every 30 minutes. I imagine if they did that he wouldn’t be laying dead,’’ he said.

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