In the last month, a series of letters from worried employees at the Florida Department of Corrections arrived in the mail box of Sen. Greg Evers, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Employees detailed tales of corrupt officers, onerous staffing conditions, being coached to answer an employee survey, and an atmosphere in which anyone faced retaliation if they spoke up about allegations of agency corruption.
Evers, who has conducted nearly a dozen surprise visits to prisons around the state, said he confirmed the identity of the anonymous employees by speaking to them on the phone but agreed to shield their identities. He said he solicited none of the letters, though he gave people his email and cell phone number. He is now considering having some appear under oath before the committee.
“I want to be sure there is a good working environment at DOC and ease employee fears that if there’s something wrong they can come forward without retribution,’’ he told the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times.
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At his committee meeting Monday, Evers got assurance from DOC Secretary Julie Jones that her agency would not retaliate against any corrections officer who comes forward. “They will have free passage,’’ Jones told the committee when asked by Evers.
Evers commended Jones for being willing to answer the committee’s questions, but said the letter writers have confirmed the need for many of the changes the Senate is pursuing in a sweeping reform bill that would shift oversight of the department from the governor to an independent board.
One writer detailed the low staffing in the Office of Inspector General, the office that investigates criminal and administrative complaints, noting that of the 160 authorized positions in the department, only 73 are filled and 21 of those do not conduct inspections.
“Staff turnover is at an all time high with the OIG, while moral is at an all time low,’’ the writer wrote. He described the office as “crudely equipped” with few inspectors having access to laptops and others relying on phones that can’t take pictures or receive email.
The writer repeated allegations of four whistleblowers who have said that Inspector General Jeffery Beasley frequently told staff to pursue “the low lying fruit” and ignore the investigations into corruption.
The whistleblowers are suing the department for denying them whistleblower protection after they alerted Beasley to what they considered a cover-up of the suspicious death of inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo at Franklin Correctional Institution.
“Command staff does not overtly tell inspectors not to investigate certain things,’’ the letter states. “It appears to be the preferred method of command staff to stifle inspectors with a barrage of busy work type tasks.’’
Among those tasks, the writer said: inspectors are asked to spend their time “investigating cases of staff yelling at inmates, missing honey buns or the food portions from the dining hall” rather than developing “leads on corrupt staff,’’ such as guards smuggling in contraband, inmates having sex with staff, officers intentionally injuring inmates, or management covering up for officers engaged in those activities.
“If inspectors sustain a case they are labeled as a headhunter or out to get people,’’ the letter states. “If a case is not sustained the inspector can be labeled as lazy, incompetent or corrupt.”
Another member of the inspector general’s office acknowledged the dispute between Beasley and the whistleblowers but urged Evers to find a way to improve the inspector’s office, not disband it. “I ask you understand our agency as a whole is not corrupt and a failure,’’ the writer said.
Another writer ended with a plea.
“The members of the OIG are good people, highly motivated and experts at our craft,’’ he wrote. They work long and hard “often to the detriment of their health and family. Recently an inspector took their own life. The OIG needs help…quickly.’’
Several current and former employees commended Evers for his surprise visits to several prisons with one former employee saying he had “been guilty” of setting up the “dog and pony show” tours of the prisons for legislators and other Tallahassee officials. “I hated that, but my job was always in jeopardy,’’ one former employee wrote.
Other writers detailed the impact the working conditions, and the fear that legislators want to shift many of the state’s prisons to private vendors, is having on employee morale and performance.
One writer described how officers are offered $2,200 for a carton of cigarettes that could return $7,700 “inside the fence” and cell phones “that will pay $500 to $1000 to each bad staff member.”
“It can be strong temptation to overworked, underpaid, under appreciated staff that no longer see a career with retirement benefits in the future,’’ the writer said. “Most staff do not think that we will have a state job within the next four years. We believe that it is the governor’s plan to sell us to the lowest bidder and leave us with nothing after years of service to the state….Stand up for us. Pay us what we are worth and give us the respect and recognition we deserve for keeping the worst of the worst inside the fence.”
One writer noted how the low pay scales force many people to work second jobs while they are on 12-hour shifts. “The hours are not what is dragging us down. It’s the hours at other jobs to make up the pay difference between us and the other law enforcement agencies. We work at places like AutoZone, Wal-Mart, and Publix to make ends meet.”
Another writer bemoaned legislators “who act on behalf of the public have let us down” leaving the agency “alarmingly understaffed, underpaid and unappreciated.” He detailed how staff is routinely “borrowed” from one job to fill a vacancy in another, how they are issued broken equipment and inadequate uniforms and how the conditions stifle them.
“Despite public opinion, we face the same challenges as the inmates in our jurisdiction,’’ the writer said. “The only difference being the color of our uniforms.”
And another writer described how they agency prepared for legislator visits “by pumping up staff levels artificially” and cleaning dorms.
Jones told the committee that she has conducted staff meetings at correctional institutions across the state where employees have spoken up about many of the complaints mentioned in the letters.
“Everything that you’ve just mentioned people have said in open meetings and no one has been fired because they said anything,” she said.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who first filed the proposal to create the oversight board, said lawmakers must take a broad approach to addressing the employee concerns.
“We have structural problems with the Department of Corrections and these are not problems that you simply throw money at,’’ he said. “We need to link any further increases in appropriations to some accountability measures and I hope that we have that discussion going forward.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas