Florida Prisons

Prison chief makes top brass reapply for jobs

Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones

In a move that has the potential to either shake up the Department of Corrections or validate the status quo, prisons chief Julie Jones has asked for the 12 top officials in charge of prisons and probation to reapply for their jobs by Tuesday as part of a major realignment designed to centralize power at the agency.

The officials, each of them high-ranking officers who have spent most of their career rising through the ranks of the department, may seek their old job or apply for any of the openings in one of the three existing regions or seek the open posts at a newly added fourth region.

The move opens to competition the top jobs in the state’s prison system. Having to apply to stay employed are three directors and three assistant directors of the three current regions and two regional directors and four assistant directors of the two community corrections regions. Applicants — including current regional chiefs Sam Culpepper, Eric Lane and Randy Tifft — will be judged based on a new set of accountability measures imposed by an executive order of the governor in May, said DOC spokesman McKinley Lewis.

“We want to put the right people in the right seats,” he said.

The result will have the effect of either allowing Jones to reject any of the high-ranking officials at the embattled agency without having to fire them, or keep the veteran officers in place and consolidate her power. Jones was appointed secretary of the agency by Scott in January and is the seventh head of the troubled agency in nearly as many years.

For the last two years, the Miami Herald has chronicled a pattern of deadly abuse in Florida’s prisons, staff cover-ups and intimidation tactics used to quiet complaints by inmates and prison officials.

The May 8 executive order, and initiated by Jones, attempted to address many of those problems by increasing accountability at the agency. It focused on tightening regulations relating to the use of force, protecting employees from retaliation when they report wrongdoing, and improving the tracking of chemical agents used to subdue disruptive inmates.

Since then, the agency has fired 316 employees “as a result of disciplinary action,” and assisted in the arrest of eight corrections officers for a range of offenses, Lewis said. The offenses include battery on an inmate, falsifying records, introducing contraband into a prison, conspiracy and possession of drug paraphernalia.

The Office of Inspector General, which was accused of covering up inmate abuse in the past, has also opened “340 cases of inappropriate use of force, based on allegations of excessive force, physical abuse or violations of procedures or rules,” he said.

The latest exercise is part of the “Regional Realignment and Centralization Project” that aims to streamline the regional offices, centralize the administrative and support functions of the agency and requires hundreds of employees to reapply for jobs.

“We are confident that these projects will increase accountability and allow the Department to further utilize our resources,” Jones wrote in a letter to employees last week.

She said the changes “will have no direct effect” on most of the agency’s 23,000 employees but warned that for others, “these changes will drastically impact the way in which they conduct daily operations within the Department, and may necessitate a move to employment outside of our agency,” Jones wrote.

Whatever Jones does will be closely watched by critics who have blasted the agency for its culture of corruption and inmate abuse, and by legislators who last session considered creating an independent commission that would oversee the agency that many lawmakers had concluded could no longer police itself.

“I don’t know what their motives are,” said Judy Thompson, director of the Forgotten Majority, a Jacksonville-based non-profit that advocates for inmate rights. “It could just be a dog and pony show for the upcoming legislative session. I don’t know. The only thing I can say for sure is I’m not getting less complaints. I’m getting more — and you have to intervene to keep people alive.”

George Mallinckrodt, a former psychotherapist at Dade Correctional Institution, who has been an outspoken critic of the agency, said he is hopeful that Jones is determined “get rid of some of these people who cover up for others” but he is waiting to see what transpires.

“She has a lot of power to change things,” he said of Jones. “The 500-pound gorilla in the room is the culture of brutality that controls the DOC, and the only way that can be dislodged is to go at it with a vengeance.”

He said that if Jones attempts to attack the abuse, “she is going to be in for the fight of her life ... My attitude is ‘prove it.’ ”

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chairman of the House’s Criminal Justice Subcommittee, said he was encouraged by the move.

“The good thing that is coming out is we’re actually reviewing performance,” he said. “For way too long it was status quo — regardless of outcome. Her reviewing everyone individually on their strengths and weaknesses is a good start.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

Incidents by region

Region 1: Sam Culpepper, regional director; Rodney Tomlinson, assistant regional director

▪ Northwest Florida Reception Center — June 2010: Rommell Johnson, 44, an asthmatic inmate with severe breathing problems, is repeatedly gassed in confinement. The state later pays his mother $175,000 in a wrongful death lawsuit.

▪ Northwest Florida Reception Center — Aug. 2014: Five corrections officers beat a handcuffed and shackled Jeremiah Tatum, 31. A captain, James Kirkland, and four officers, are charged. Kirkland commits suicide in December.

▪ Franklin CI — Sept. 2010: Randall Jordan-Aparo, 27, a check forger, dies after being repeated blasted with chemicals while pleading for medical assistance. Death is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation.

▪ Franklin CI — July 2014: Two officers brutally beat an inmate and then allegedly lie to cover up their actions. The U.S. Department of Justice brings charges against the officers a year later.

▪ Santa Rosa CI — March 2012: Ricky Martin, 24, is savagely beaten to death in his cell, hours after corrections officers placed Shawn Rogers, a much larger man with a history of bloody attacks on cellmates, in his cell. Witnesses say guards ignored Martin’s pleas for help and Rogers’ hollering that he was going to kill Martin.

▪ Santa Rosa CI — Sept. 2013: Jerry Washington, 56, dies of a drug overdose, one week after he tells his family that officers had threatened to kill him for filing a sexual harassment complaint against staff. His death is ruled a suicide, although inmates claim he was poisoned by staff.

Region 2: Eric Lane, regional director; Duane Spears, assistant regional director

▪ Lowell CI — July 2009: Inmate Bernadette Gregory, 42, is found hanging from a bed sheet days after she wrote a complaint against officers who had been ridiculing her because she was in a wheelchair. Death is ruled a suicide and never investigated.

▪ Lowell CI — Oct. 2014: Latandra Ellington, a 36-year-old mother of four, is found dead less than 24 hours after she told her family and prison officials that an officer had threatened to kill her.

▪ Lake Butler Reception Center — Nov. 2014: Two corrections officers and a former officer trainee — part of a KKK affiliate — allegedly hatch a plot to kill in inmate. The officers are arrested in a federal sting several months later.

▪ Suwanee, CI — June 2015: Two corrections officers attack two restrained inmates during a counseling session and allegedly lie about it to cover it up. They are arrested a month later on charges of battery and falsifying records, both misdemeanors.

▪ Lake City CI — July 2015: An 18-year-old inmate, imprisoned on burglary charges, is repeatedly sprayed in the face with chemical agents, apparently for no reason. An officer officer is arrested.

▪ Union CI — Sept. 2012: Frank Smith, 44, dies after a violent encounter with officers. The death, still under investigation by FDLE, led to the firing of 10 employees. At the time of Smith’s death, the prison system was probing five other cases at Union in which officers were suspected of using excessive force.

Region 3: Randy Tifft, regional director; Larry Mayo, assistant regional director

▪ Charlotte CI — May 2008: Corrections officer intentionally gouges out the eye of an inmate during a cell extraction. When one officer objects he is harassed and eventually fired. Eye gouger eventually charged by feds and sent to prison.

▪ Charlotte CI — April 2014: Matthew Walker is beaten to death by staff following a cell extraction. A state grand jury later says it can’t pursue charges because officers discarded evidence and gave conflicting testimony.

▪ Charlotte CI — Aug. 2015: Quonta Howard, 35, dies under mysterious circumstances. It is the seventh suspicious death under criminal probe at the prison.

▪ Dade CI — June 2012: Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old mentally ill prisoner, dies after being locked in a scalding shower for two hours. Inmates and others say the shower was used as a makeshift torture chamber, but their concerns are disregarded.

▪ Dade CI — Sept. 2013: Richard Mair, 40, another mentally ill prisoner, hangs himself, leaving a suicide note charging he was physically, sexually and mentally abused at the prison by staff. FDOC doesn’t investigate.

▪ Dade CI — Oct. 2014: Ronald “Psycho” McCoy, an armed robber serving two life sentences, walks away on Halloween. Prison officials don’t notify local authorities until the Herald gets a tip and inquires. He is captured in Palm Beach a few days later.

Related stories from Miami Herald