Florida legislators refuse to take strong measures to control the violently dysfunctional Florida Department of Corrections despite the arrest of White supremacist prison guards who plotted to kill a Black ex-inmate.
COMPILED FROM WIRE REPORTS
Thomas Jordan Driver – a Florida prison guard until last week – is getting a taste of life on the other side of the bars.
Driver and two buddies, all of whom prosecutors say belonged to an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, were charged with plotting to kill a former inmate at a North Florida prison.
Driver, 25, David Elliot Moran, 47, who goes by the name “Sarge,” and Charles Thomas Newcomb, identified as an “Exalted Cyclops” of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, each face one charge of conspiracy to commit murder. If convicted, they could get a maximum sentence of 30 years imprisonment.
The arrests are the latest blow to Florida’s Department of Corrections (DOC), which has endured months of news stories about unexplained inmate deaths and allegations of systemic corruption.
The arrests come after months of turmoil in the state’s prison system, including allegations of suspicious inmate deaths, a doubling of use-of-force incidents in the past five years, and claims by whistleblowers that investigations into corruption and inmate abuse within the DOC have been ignored or torpedoed.
On Wednesday, five DOC inspectors appealed a federal judge’s ruling that dismissed their First Amendment claims about facing retaliation for reporting alleged wrongdoing in the prison system.
Attorneys for inspectors Aubrey Land, David Clark, Doug Glisson, John Ulm and James Padgett filed a notice of appeal last week with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case, in part, stems from claims of retaliation related to information that inspectors disclosed about the 2010 Franklin Correctional Institution death of inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo and a potential cover-up.
But Senior U.S. District Judge William Stafford on March 4 dismissed the inspectors’ complaint against high-ranking officials at the Department of Corrections and in Gov. Rick Scott’s administration.
Moran and Driver were guards at the state’s Reception and Medical Center, a prison that processes incoming inmates and provides medical care to others. Located in Lake Butler, it houses a maximum of 1,503 inmates. Newcomb was a former prison employee who was let go during his probation period.
The three are alleged to have plotted the murder as retaliation for a fight between the unidentified inmate, who is Black, and Driver. In a secretly recorded conversation with a federal informant, Driver complained that the inmate had a contagious disease and that the prisoner had tried to infect him by biting him.
“That blood work … I had to go through,” Driver said. “The mental stress of it … I wouldn’t want anybody to have to go through that.”
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said that the three were “part of a White supremacist group that was targeting inmates.” She called the incident “disquieting.”
The Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is headed by a Missouri man, self-proclaimed Imperial Wizard Frank Ancona, who has made headlines lately for trying to modernize his Klan group while remaining faithful to its White-supremacist origins.
The Knights’ website allows followers to join the group online, and provides a 24-hour “Klanline” for prospective members. Ancona’s “official” Twitter account has 741 followers. Ancona wears a white robe and poses before a flaming cross in his profile picture.
In recent months, the group’s activities have consisted largely of distributing leaflets, including a flier last November in which the group threatened to use “lethal force” against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri – the group called them “terrorists” – who were holding rallies following the shooting death of a Black man by a White police officer.
Although Ancona claims his group has attracted thousands, a spokesman for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which long has tracked hate groups, said he would be “shocked if there were 100 members.”
The investigation began in November 2014 when Driver, Moran and Newcomb sought the help of the unidentified federal informant, referred to in court papers as ‘CHS’, which stands for confidential human source. The informant was recruited to help the three alleged Klan members commit the killing, records show.
Newcomb, Moran and the informant drove to Palatka, near Gainesville, a sworn statement says, to “conduct surveillance” of their target’s home. They also discussed how they would kill the man, alternating between shooting him with a 9mm gun or injecting him with insulin.
“We could grab the package up and take him to the river, which is not far from him,” Newcomb is quoted as saying, and “put his ass face-down and uh, give him a couple of shots.” Moran later added that the group could “do a complete disposal,” and “chop up the body.”
Eventually, court records say, the three men agreed to allow the federal informant to arrange the murder, and the federal “source” later showed the three men staged pictures of the man’s corpse.
“Are you happy with that, brother?” the informant asked Driver, a transcript says.
“Yes, sir, very much so,” Driver reportedly replied.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi told reporters during a conference call late Thursday that the case will be tried in Columbia County by Statewide Prosecutor Nick Cox.
Driver, hired as a corrections officer on July 23, 2010, received a written reprimand in April 2012 for willful violation of rules, and another two months later for absence without authorized leave.
Moran, whose employment history goes back to 1996, was promoted to sergeant in April 2004. He received written reprimands in October 1999 and February 2006 for conduct unbecoming a public employee, and a supervisory counseling memorandum in May 2010 for abuse of sick leave.
Newcomb, hired Oct. 12, 2012, as a trainee-status correctional officer, was dismissed the following Jan. 6 for failure to meet a correctional officer’s minimum training requirements.
In an effort to right the troubled DOC, the Florida Senate passed a bill last week aimed at giving sweeping new investigatory powers to an independent oversight commission that could subpoena agency administrators suspected of wrongdoing.
The Senate’s plan would create a nine-member, governor-appointed panel that would have broad investigatory powers and essentially take over the job now performed by the agency’s inspector general, who answers to Scott’s chief inspector general.
Saying that reform must happen, a Florida House panel on Tuesday pushed forward a plan aimed at increasing oversight of the state’s troubled prison system but stopped short of endorsing an independent commission included in the Senate’s corrections overhaul.
House Criminal Justice Chairman Carlos Trujillo, the prison reform bill’s sponsor, amended the proposal to add two more administrative regions to the agency’s three current regions, which he said would increase accountability over the state’s 56 prisons.
Establishing five regions – a revival of the same number of regional divisions once employed by the corrections agency decades ago – would introduce “more eyes, more bodies, more people, more boots on the ground,” Trujillo told reporters after the meeting.
“Part of the problem is you have to attack the culture,” Trujillo, a lawyer, said. “In some facilities there’s this camaraderie and this culture of, ‘This is our house and you people just have to live by whatever rules we pass,’ whether they conform with the laws of morals and ethics of everything we live by in society. That’s what has to stop.”
But Allison DeFoor, a prison-reform advocate who heads Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice and has pushed the oversight commission, told the panel that adding more regions won’t solve the prison system’s woes.
“It’s structurally broken. It’s not a crisis situation. It’s much worse than that,” DeFoor, a former judge and sheriff, said.
“You can’t lift a car with good intentions. You have to have a posse. You need people to do it,” he said.
Carol Marbin Miller and Mary Ellen Klas of the Miami Herald / TNS and Dara Kam of The News Service of Florida all contributed to this report.