COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
TALLAHASSEE – In a blistering condemnation of Florida’s prison system, several current and former prison inspectors told state lawmakers Tuesday that their bosses repeatedly told them to ignore evidence of possible criminal wrongdoing by corrections officers, fearing it would give the agency a “black eye.”
The four inspectors, speaking publicly for the first time before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, testified under oath about interference by unnamed agency officials as they attempted to weed out inmate abuse, medical neglect, gang violence and organized crime.
They cited cases where they were told to withhold information from prosecutors, to close investigations into people with ties to officials at the state Capitol, and to avoid criminal charges, no matter how much evidence they had.
Human rights abuses
“We are at the point where we can no longer police ourselves,” said John Ulm, a veteran law enforcement officer who now works in the inspector general’s office. He said the atrocities he has observed on the streets of America pale in comparison to the human rights violations occurring in the Florida prison system.
Ulm testified that since he began aggressive probes of widespread corruption, he has been “threatened” and has been the subject of several internal affairs investigations that appeared to be in retaliation for his pursuit of exposing corruption.
“We can’t do it alone. We need some oversight,” he said. “The organized crime, the murders, the assaults, the victimization that goes on there every day is horrendous.”
No criminal charges
Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that, as a corrections investigator, he was twice told by “upper-level management” in the inspector general’s office of the Department of Corrections not to pursue criminal charges against corrupt, high-ranking officials.
Investigators were encouraged to pursue administrative cases – which could end in firings but not criminal charges – “to make it look favorable upon the department,” Harrison said after being sworn in, a rarely used option available to committee chairmen and ordered Tuesday by Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker.
“Criminal charges on a high-ranking colonel or warden or assistant warden would obviously be a black eye on DOC,” said Harrison, who left the inspector general’s office in December 2012 after being elected sheriff.
Harrison said he was told not to pursue criminal charges against a former Jackson Correctional Institution warden and assistant warden regarding a cover-up of the medical treatment of an inmate at the Panhandle prison in which two inmates nearly lost their lives.
The state attorney’s office originally declined to take the case but agreed to bring charges against former warden Ted Jeter and assistant warden CarolAnn Bracewell after Harrison and another investigator obtained additional sworn testimony indicating that the pair had pressured workers into keeping silent about what happened, Harrison said.
Doug Glisson, who was Harrison’s supervisor at the time and still works for Inspector General Jeffrey Beasley, said the decision not to pursue criminal charges came from Beasley.
The unprecedented testimony comes amid a series of reports on the suspicious deaths of inmates and public outcry by civil rights groups over the treatment of mentally ill prisoners.
Ulm, Glisson and inspector Aubrey Land filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit last year claiming that Beasley instructed them to back off an investigation involving a possible cover-up in the killing of a 27-year-old inmate at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010.
The inmate, Randall Jordon-Aparo, died after he was repeatedly gassed by corrections officers whom the inspectors said fabricated their stories about why he was gassed.
The suit was dismissed by a federal judge last week but is on appeal.
Harrison also told the committee he was also instructed not to pursue a criminal case against a colonel at Holmes Correctional Institution who had been accused of smuggling contraband into the prison.
Harrison said he ignored his superiors and brought the case to the state attorney, who later pressed charges against the colonel, who is now on probation.
“I come from a law-enforcement background,” Harrison, who worked for the inspector general’s office for about two years, said. “I was used to, if someone broke the law, that you took the charges to the state attorney’s office and you proceed forward. That didn’t appear to be the case within the inspector general’s office. It was quite frustrating with me.”
‘No one listens’
Land acknowledged that while there are scores of good corrections officers within the prison system, the culture of corruption and staff shortages has made it difficult for them to do their jobs adequately.
“We have offered up solutions that no one listens to,” Land said.
One example he cited involved the black-market tobacco market that he said is “worth millions” of profit for staff and corrections officers who smuggle it in on a daily basis.
Gang violence is also rampant, Land said, describing an incident in which an elderly, wheelchair-bound inmate – in tears – told him how he had been robbed of all his belongings and slashed in his neck by gang members. No corrections officers were around to protect him, he told Land.
Evers, who has sponsored a sweeping prison overhaul (SB 7020) that would create a commission with investigatory powers to oversee the policing of prisons, said he wants “to dig deeper” into Harrison’s accusations about Beasley’s office. Evers said he would support the creation of a special legislative joint committee to look into allegations of cover-ups within the office of the inspector general.
“We’ve got a problem. I said several meetings back that we’ve got a crisis. Yes, we’ve got a crisis,” he said.
Tuesday’s testimony from Glisson and Harrison indicated a pattern of Beasley’s office preventing inspectors from going after senior officials and focusing instead on “low-hanging fruit,” as characterized by an anonymous investigator in a letter highly critical of Beasley sent to Evers.
Glisson told the committee on Tuesday that he was told to drop an investigation into a high-ranking corrections official’s possible involvement with wrongdoing at a training academy.
Two days after one of Glisson’s inspectors asked the official about the academy, “we were called to the office of the inspector general and we were warned that the person we had named as a subject, that there was a ‘Capitol connection’ with this individual,” Glisson said.
“It just had a chilling effect,” he said.
Glisson and his inspector then were told to go through the official himself if they wanted any information pertaining to the investigation.
“Again, inspectors and investigators are supposed to have unfettered access to documentation, to talk to who we want. But now we’re being told specifically you’ll go through this person who’s been named as a subject,” he said. “We thought it was inappropriate.”
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has acknowledged that the agency has been chronically underfunded and understaffed but has repeatedly defended Beasley – who answers to Scott’s Inspector General Melinda Miguel – since she took over the post in January.
After the meeting, Jones dismissed the testimony and said it “represents one view of several incidents that happened years ago.” She said she was disappointed the allegations were presented to the committee absent “all known facts” and “represents one view of several incidents that happened years ago.”
In an interview with the Herald/Times last week, Jones said she believes the employees making the claims are frustrated investigators whom she believes are not authorized to be investigating crimes.
“We have a problem with certain individuals in the IGs office that want to be FDLE agents,” she said.
“They are not FDLE agents. They are not trained to be criminal investigators – to delve into corruption and the individuals that we’ve hired could be qualified to be criminal investigators but that is not their role.”
Evers said the testimony was the last chance his committee may have to expose evidence of troubles within the agency during the two-month session.
He suggested that DOC Secretary Jones, and the inspector general’s office, were “dragging their feet” in their promises to reform the agency.
Mary Ellen Klas and Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald / TNS and Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida all contributed to this report.