Florida’s prison-whistleblower payout tip of the iceberg

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Former Department of Corrections Inspector General Jeffery Beasley speaking at a Senate committee in March 2015.
Former Department of Corrections Inspector General Jeffery Beasley speaking at a Senate committee in March 2015.

This week, Florida settled a whistleblower-retaliation lawsuit for $800,000. The state got off easy. Too easy. Worse, the seeming mastermind behind the retaliation that almost destroyed the lives and livelihoods of Department of Corrections investigators trying to do their jobs is still on the state payroll, and working for, yep, the Department of Corrections. Why?

The state agreed on Tuesday to pay the money to three prison investigators who alerted their bosses in the department’s inspector general’s office that prison guards were abusing inmates, including Randall Jordan-Aparo, whom they suspected had been gassed to death by corrections officers. The department also agreed to pay to end lawsuits by three other investigators.

Upon hearing the troubling allegations, the boss, then-inspector general Jeff Beasley, apparently leaped into action — and made the whistleblowers’ existence a living hell for having the decency to assume that “torturer” was not part of the any prison guard’s job description.

That their allegations were ignored not just by Mr. Beasley and by Melinda Miguel, who is Gov. Scott’s inspector general — she refused to give them whistleblower protection or to investigate — is disturbing. But, according to the lawsuit, Mr. Beasley and others went to stunning lengths to retaliate against them, so stunning that Tuesday’s settlement agreement should not be the end of the story, as the state hopes.

As reported by Mary Ellen Klas, of the Herald/Times Bureau, after getting nowhere with their boss, the investigators testified under oath before a committee of the state Senate. After that, they said that he relentlessly tried to smear their reputations, targeted them with several internal investigations and even forged signatures, possibly threatening their law-enforcement status and, therefore, their ability to make a living. Last year, Ms. Miguel cleared Mr. Beasley of wrongdoing, citing a lack of “substantive evidence.” In light of the settlement, part of which taxpayers will fund, that’s not good enough. There needs to be an independent investigation. An insider giving another insider a pass does not inspire confidence.

For its part, Florida did not agree to the allegations, but agreed to pay up, drop remaining internal investigations and, basically, make it all go away. It shouldn’t. There is a lot of culpability to go around.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature continue to hamstring Corrections Secretary Julie Jones with a skimpy budget and skimpier resources to really clean up the mess of Florida’s prisons. Ms. Jones has made some strides, getting rid of the worst prison guards and transferring others.

What’s missing, though, is the ability to make the deep, systemic changes in a prison culture fraught with violence between inmates, poorly trained corrections officers and few, if any, inmate-rehabilitation programs. The physical conditions are abysmal in facilities across the state. Tuesday, the day of the settlement, Franklin Correctional erupted, the fourth prison riot this year over deplorable conditions. Legislators know the facility is perilously understaffed, but the agency’s complaints haven’t led to much progress.

Last year, the state Senate was on track to create a corrections oversight commission to advocate for the department and hold its administrators accountable. (This was supposed to be Mr. Beasley’s job, of course.) Gov. Scott, and the House, derailed it.

Clearly, there’s no commitment from the top, which, as the settlement and the string of suspicious inmate deaths during the past two years prove, comes at a tragic cost, human and financial.