Florida’s Department of Corrections: A Culture of Corruption, Abuse and Deaths
Florida, with the nation’s third-largest prison system, has a long and sordid history of abusing, neglecting and even killing its prisoners. Because most state prisons are in insular rural areas, the general public, aside from those with incarcerated loved ones or friends, has minimal awareness of what really occurs within facilities operated by the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) or its private contractors.
The FDOC has historically strived to preserve this lack of transparency by obfuscating the actual happenings in its prisons. The department’s modus operandi is to portray itself as a professional state agency that protects citizens from dangerous criminals, which requires an ever-increasing share of taxpayer dollars to keep society safe from a growing prison population.
Keeping its dirty laundry in-house is an administrative priority. Occasionally, however, particularly egregious incidents belie the FDOC’s carefully crafted vision statement of “changing lives to ensure a safer Florida,” and the public gets a glimpse of the reality behind prison walls.
For months after death row prisoner Frank Valdes died at the Florida State Prison on July 17, 1999, FDOC officials maintained that he committed suicide by diving head-first off his bunk, striking the bars in his cell. An autopsy, however, clearly indicated that bootprints were found on his body and that he had been savagely beaten by guards. Valdes’ family received a $750,000 settlement, though the guards charged with killing him were eventually acquitted at trial. [See: PLN, March 2007, p.18; Aug. 2002, p.12; Jan. 2001, p.6; Oct. 1999, p.1].
The FDOC’s reputation as a professionally staffed and managed agency took another blow in 2006 when the state’s Corrections Secretary, James V. Crosby, and his main lieutenant were indicted on federal corruption charges related to a kickback scheme. In the wake of that scandal, Crosby and his sidekick served time in prison and several other officials were fired for illegally using prisoner labor. [See: PLN, Dec. 2007, p.32; Dec. 2006, p.1].
Aside from regular changes at the FDOC’s top post, the department has been able to keep its dirty laundry in the closet in recent years. However, its cloak of secrecy unraveled in the wake of a Miami Herald feature story about a prisoner who was scalded to death in a shower closet in a confinement unit at Dade Correctional Institution (DCI). Darren Rainey, 50, who was serving a two-year sentence for drug possession, was killed at DCI on June 23, 2012.
Rainey suffered from mental illness and had defecated in his cell. When he refused to clean up the mess, he was placed in a small shower for almost two hours under scalding hot water. According to other prisoners in the unit, the shower was used as punishment for prisoners who angered the guards; in the 30 minutes before Rainey collapsed, he reportedly screamed and pleaded for help.
“How do you like your shower?” one guard taunted him, said prisoner Mark Joiner. “He was crying, please stop, please stop,” but the guards said “Enjoy your shower” and left.
The 180-degree water left Rainey’s skin peeling from his body. When an infirmary nurse took his temperature, it registered 102 degrees. He died shortly afterwards.
Joiner was ordered by guards to clean up the “crime scene”; he was provided with bleach and gloves, and found one blue canvas shoe in the shower plus large pieces of skin that had been boiled off Rainey’s body. “I just kept shoving it in the shoe,” he said. “And then I asked, ‘what do you want me to do with it?’ And [the guard] said just throw it in the trash. So I did.”
The Metro-Dade police department was called to the prison but did little investigating, failing to even keep the 911 tape. Two years later an autopsy report had not been issued; Rainey’s death seemed to have been forgotten, just like other abuses in FDOC facilities. Then the Miami-Herald began to investigate after learning of efforts by prisoners such as Joiner and Harold Hampstead to bring Rainey’s death to light. The Herald’s news report eventually blew the cover off several other incidents, resulting in widespread publicity and political fallout.
Gassed to Death
Following the Herald’s report nearly two years after Rainey’s scalding death at DCI, several FDOC investigators filed a whistleblower suit claiming they faced retaliation when they tried to expose corruption, brutality and officially sanctioned gang violence within the prison system.
Their complaint revealed details surrounding the September 2010 death of Randall Jordan-Aparo, who was serving an 18-month sentence for credit card fraud and drug charges, in a confinement unit at the Franklin Correctional Institution (FCI).
FDOC investigator Aubrey P. Land had been dispatched to FCI in early 2013 to look into problems at the facility.
“We got inmates down there that are getting their throats slashed on a regular basis,” he said in an interview with Melinda Miguel, Governor Rick Scott’s Inspector General. “Their faces slashed, beat down with locks and socks; tremendous amount of contraband allegations that staff is ordering this and bringing in contraband and being paid and everyone we’re talking to is saying, ‘You know they killed that kid.’”
Unlike many prison employees, Land not only listened but investigated. “So, finally, I had heard enough, and I said go back and start looking at all the deaths,” he stated. “Nobody would give me a name, and I find Randall Jordan-Aparo and immediately bells and whistles start going off. This thing ain’t pretty.”
On September 15, 2010, Jordan-Aparo, 27, complained of back pain after falling while playing basketball. He collapsed several times over the next few days, and was taken to the infirmary three times with a 102-degree temperature. Nurse Martha Greene performed an electrocardiogram but admitted she was not proficient at reading the results. Nonetheless, she concluded his heart was working properly.
The on-call prison physician, Dr. Mohammad Choudhary, instructed Greene to begin an IV and keep Jordan-Aparo in the infirmary. The nurses were unable to insert the IV after several attempts, so they gave up and left him in the infirmary.
At about 4 a.m. on September 18, Jordan-Aparo complained to LPN Lucy Franklin about pain and requested to be sent to a hospital. After his request was denied, Jordan-Aparo said, “I’m going to sue your fucking ass. I need to go to the hospital.”
Greene called security, and without consulting a doctor Capt. Mitchell Brown ordered that Jordan-Aparo be placed in an isolation cell for causing a “disturbance.” A pre-confinement physical alleged he “had no known medical conditions that would be exacerbated by the use of chemical agents,” despite his medical records indicating he had a disease that could cause respiratory difficulties.
According to prisoner witnesses, Sgt. Kevin “Bit Jit” Hampton told Jordan-Aparo, “Ain’t nobody comin’ to help you.” He then ordered him to “man up” and be quiet.
With the approval of Col. Timothy Copeland at 11:25 a.m., Lt. Rollin “Suttie” Austin ordered Jordan-Aparo to be gassed. Over the next 40 minutes he was sprayed three times with chemical agents. The first two times were three bursts per application of pepper spray; the third was three bursts of tear gas, which causes severe burning in the lungs.
Just 10 minutes of exposure to tear gas in such a confined space could be lethal, said Sven-Eric Jordt, an associate professor in anesthesiology at Duke University. “Obviously, the agent was sprayed directly on to the inmate and may have deposited on his skin, clothing, eyes, and mouth at much higher concentrations, with less of it airborne, making the concentrations that much higher.”
Guards said they then “escorted” Jordan-Aparo to a shower closet for decontamination. According to other prisoners he was dragged. Photographs and additional evidence put the guards’ claims of decontamination efforts in question, the Miami Herald reported.
“He was orange,” one prisoner told investigators. The photos they viewed in 2013 showed Jordan-Aparo’s body still coated with orange tear gas residue. They also found the cell had residue everywhere; the floor was smeared with orange, which also covered the sink and toilet, and there was a dense orange cloud above the top bunk. Although guards said they had provided Jordan-Aparo with fresh clothes, he was in dirty, orange-stained boxers when later found dead in his cell.
“I can’t take it, I can’t take the gas, I can’t breathe,” he cried out while being tear gassed, according to a prisoner witness. Jordan-Aparo was seen at 12:30 p.m. by prison nurses Franklin and Riley. Because he was allegedly uncooperative, despite video showing he was so weak coming out of the shower that a wheelchair was required, Riley was unable to obtain a blood pressure reading. Dr. Choudhary ordered over the phone that his blood pressure be taken, but the nurses instead allowed guards to take him back to his isolation cell. Two hours later, the nurses made another attempt to take Jordan-Aparo’s blood pressure. He was unable to move, refused to cooperate and would not sign a release form, according to prison records.
At 4:30 p.m., Sgt. Hampton found Jordan-Aparo sprawled on the floor of his cell when serving the dinner meal. He allegedly refused to eat but gave a “thumbs up” sign. Jordan-Aparo was not checked on again until 6:08 p.m. At that time his lifeless body was discovered with “his mouth and nose  pressed to the bottom of the door, as if trying to gulp fresh air through the thin crack,” the Herald reported. A paperback bible was lying under his shoulder.
“I’ve done this for 30 years. My skin doesn’t crawl very often,” said Land, the FDOC investigator. “They killed that damn kid. He laid there for five days begging for help.” An autopsy found Jordan-Aparo’s death was caused by a rare blood disorder that was treatable.
Previously, another prisoner had died after being gassed by guards – Rommell Johnson, 44, who died at the Northwest Florida Reception Center in June 2010. Although he had chronic asthma, his death was found to be accidental by a medical examiner and the FDOC’s inspector general. His mother received a $175,000 settlement after filing a lawsuit. However, Johnson’s death was opened for reexamination in March 2015 following widespread publicity related to other prisoners’ deaths.
Abuse and Deaths Widespread
News reports concerning the deaths of Rainey and Jordan-Aparo resulted in public scrutiny of other unnatural deaths within Florida’s prison system, including the September 4, 2012 death of Frank Smith, 44, at the Union Correctional Institution (UCI). That investigation also revealed guards had used excessive force against five other prisoners.
The FDOC placed nine guards and an assistant warden on paid leave while it examined Smith’s death, which occurred after an altercation with prison staff. Nearly two years later his death remained under review. Meanwhile, the suspended guards received almost $700,000 while on paid leave. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) was reviewing the case but had no deadline for completing its investigation.
“There’s no time line that I can give you,” said FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey – who was forced to resign in December 2014 due to conflicts with Governor Scott’s office, and who later called the governor a liar for saying he had voluntarily stepped down.
Shortly after Darren Rainey’s death was reported by the Miami Herald, prisoner Damion Foster, 36, was found dead following an altercation with guards in a mental health unit at the Charlotte Correctional Institution (CCI).
Foster’s May 22, 2014 death came less than a month after the death of another CCI prisoner, Matthew Walker. Details about both deaths were sketchy, as is typical when guards kill prisoners. Sources said that Walker, 45, argued with a female guard during a late-night cell compliance check, then was killed after other guards rushed in to subdue him. He died due to a crushed larynx that led to asphyxiation; a county grand jury found that his death, which was ruled a homicide, was “tragic, senseless and avoidable.” No guards faced criminal charges.
The FDOC fired nine CCI guards for “inappropriate use of force” in connection with Walker’s death, but gave no details. Eight of those guards were later reinstated. Further, on September 19, 2014, known by guard union officials as a “Friday Night Massacre,” a total of 32 guards were terminated by the FDOC. Five were fired for using excessive force in the August 2012 death of UCI prisoner Rudolf Rowe; also terminated was Lt. Rollin Austin for his role in Jordan-Aparo’s death.
The firings were meant to send guards a message. “I’ve made it clear that there is zero tolerance for corruption or abuse,” said then-FDOC Secretary Michael Crews. “We continue to root out any and all bad actors who do not live up to our expectations.”
Less than a month after the mass firing, however, another prisoner was found dead in a confinement cell. Lowell Correctional Institution (LCI) prisoner Latandra Ellington, 36, a mother of four serving a 22-month sentence for grand theft, died on October 1, 2014. That was just 10 days after she sent a letter to her aunt saying she was in fear for her life.
Ellington wrote that she feared “Sgt. Q,” who was later identified as FDOC Sgt. Patrick Quercioli. “He was gone [sic] beat me to death and mess me like a dog,” she wrote. “He was all in my face. Sgt. Q then he grab his radio and said he was gone bust me in the head with it....”
As a result of Ellington’s allegations she was placed in a confinement unit for protection, where she was found unresponsive in her cell. The medical examiner determined her death was due to medical causes, though her family suspected foul play.
Union officials said Sgt. Quercioli was on vacation when Ellington died. Prisoners who contacted the Miami Herald claimed another guard had encouraged Ellington to complain about Quercioli’s threats, then escorted her to confinement the day she died. They urged officials to check surveillance video to see if that guard was the last one to see her alive. The prisoners also wrote that Ellington’s prior cellmate had been threatened by guards, who allegedly told her that if she talked, “The same thing that happened to [Ellington] would happen to her.”
“Our families think that we come here and we’re safe, but that’s not the case,” wrote one prisoner who had spent a decade at the prison. “I’ve seen a lot of injustices, but no one cares, and as a means of survival you learn to turn your head and stay silent in order to stay alive.”
A second, independent autopsy arranged by Ellington’s family found she had lethal levels of blood pressure medication in her system; her family also said there were bruises on her body and a cut on her face. Ellington’s sister has since filed a wrongful death suit.
Sgt. Quercioli, who had a criminal record before he joined the FDOC, was terminated on August 4, 2015; another officer who allegedly threatened Ellington, Dustin Thrasher, also was fired. No criminal charges were filed.
Four unexplained deaths occurred at LCI in 2014. They remain “under investigation.” Also under investigation are FDOC guards Lance Ingram and Phillip Joyner, who were suspended with pay while a prisoner’s claim of sexual assault was investigated. The unnamed prisoner alleged he was victimized by the guards on August 7, 2014 at the Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler. Video from a handheld recorder and a wall-mounted camera were taken as evidence. The prisoner had filed an earlier grievance claiming he was sexually assaulted on July 30, stating, “I am not going to continue to take this abuse.”
In addition to cases where prisoners have been killed by guards’ use of excessive force, there are also cases where guards have ordered a hit on a prisoner to have him “removed” – permanently. For example, former FDOC Sergeants Robert Simmons and Delrikos A. Brooks face numerous felony charges, including ordering the murder of Taylor Correctional Institution (TCI) prisoner David Powell.
Authorities allege Sgt. Brooks received up to $24,000 to make eight trips to Tampa to pick up drugs and cell phones from prisoner David Cancel’s brother. Cancel, a one-time high-ranking gang member, then sold the contraband to other prisoners. Brooks was described as an “alpha” member of TCI’s Bloods gang.
A hit was placed on Powell after he caught Sgt. Brooks giving a cell phone to another prisoner. When he threatened to expose Brooks, Simmons spread the word among prison gang members that Powell was a snitch. The next day several prisoners jumped Powell on the recreation yard and stabbed him, though he escaped serious injury.
Brooks and Simmons then sent another prisoner to kill Powell the next day. The plot proceeded with the help of former FDOC guard Valshantaya Cook, who is accused of letting prisoner Ernest Harrington into Powell’s unit. Harrington stabbed Powell, but again he wasn’t seriously injured.
Cook was subsequently charged with multiple felonies, including money laundering, smuggling contraband into the prison and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. In addition to the charge related to ordering a hit on Powell, Brooks and Simmons face charges for money laundering and directing gang activities.
Beyond Brooks, Cook and Simmons, several other FDOC employees have been charged with abusing or assaulting prisoners.
Six guards – a captain and five sergeants – were arrested in September 2014 and charged with using chemical spray on prisoner Jeremiah L. Tatum, 31, and hitting and kicking him while he was in hand and ankle restraints. They then lied about the August 5, 2014 incident, which occurred at the Northwest Florida Reception Center, falsely claiming that Tatum had spit at one of the officers. Those arrested and fired included Sgts. William Finch, James Perkins, Robert Miller, Christopher Christmas and Dalton Riley, plus Captain James Kirkland. Kirkland later committed suicide.
Also in September 2014, Disability Rights Florida, an organization that advocates for the rights of the disabled, filed suit against the FDOC, seeking an injunction to ensure that mentally ill prisoners at DCI are not subject to abuse by staff. The case settled in April 2015, with state prison officials agreeing to provide Crisis Intervention Training to all staff at DCI, to provide supervisory training and specialized training for guards who work directly with mentally ill prisoners, to upgrade the facility’s video camera system, to fully staff the facility, and to create a mental health ombudsman’s position at DCI and the FDOC’s Region III office, among other provisions. See: Disability Rights Florida v. Crews, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 1:14-cv-23323-RNS. [See related article on p.__].
Beyond deaths due to excessive force or other incidents involving staff members, an increasing number of Florida prisoners have died due to inadequate medical care. In 2014 the FDOC reported a record 346 prisoner deaths, most from “natural causes,” though 176 had no immediate cause of death listed and there were 15 homicides – three involving guards.
The uptick in deaths began shortly after the state contracted with Corizon, a for-profit company, to provide healthcare at most Florida prisons, with competitor Wexford Health Sources providing services at a smaller number of facilities. Following extensive criticism of the quality of Corizon’s medical care, as well as fines for failing to meet state standards, the company announced in November 2015 that it was terminating its $1.2 billion, five-year contract with the FDOC, which began in 2013.
PLN will cover Corizon’s provision of medical care to Florida prisoners and its decision to cancel its contract in greater depth in a future issue.
A Cultural Problem?
“Here, you see the death of a scalded inmate and vicious beatings of others with all sorts of suspicious circumstances,” said James R. McDonough, a former Army colonel who was brought in to serve as the FDOC’s Secretary after James Crosby was indicted. “These are the same signs I noticed when I walked in the door in 2006 – and it should be sending off alarm signals.”
After McDonough stepped down in early 2008, he was replaced by Walter A. McNeil, during whose tenure Florida’s prison population topped 100,000 prisoners for the first time. McNeil was replaced by Edwin G. Buss in 2011, though Buss didn’t stay long in office – he was forced out by the governor due to differences over management styles and issues related to prison privatization eight months later. [See: PLN, Feb. 2012, p.1]. Buss was replaced by Kenneth S. Tucker, who served for just over a year.
The FDOC Secretary position was then filled by Michael D. Crews effective December 17, 2012, who said the agency was not indifferent to incidents involving abusive guards.
“We had the allegations, but we try to make our decisions based on fact,” he stated. “It’s not cultural. It’s easy to think that, when you have eight, 10, whatever the number of criminal investigations going on in the agency right now, but I can tell you it is a handful and they are the minority in our department going forward.”
His opinion was not shared by many critics, including the guards’ union. “We believe this is not the case of a few bad apples as explained by the administration, but is symptomatic of larger problems within [the prison system],” noted Bill Curtis, spokesman for Teamsters Local 2011, which has represented FDOC guards since 2011. State prison guards were previously represented by the Florida Police Benevolent Association.
“You lead by example and you’ve got to start at the top and set the standard,” said Curtis. “I’m not telling you that people shouldn’t be disciplined, but taking it out to the first line of officers doesn’t fix your middle management or your upper management.”
“These revelations that are coming out are not about incompetence,” added Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “They’re about guards killing people and public officials working feverishly to cover it up.”
Former FDOC guards Ken Smith and Joe Facenda agreed with those positions. Both had worked at CCI, and Smith called the prison “really unsafe at this point.”
“Almost nothing operated the way we were taught it should operate,” Facenda stated. “I came home, I don’t know how many times, dumbfounded at what went on there ... other officers telling you when, where, and how you can get away with roughing up an inmate.”
In his resignation letter, Facenda wrote that he had to deal with prisoners alone, was told where guards could beat prisoners without being seen, had to train a new employee after being there only a month himself, and said the majority of security checks that were supposed to occur did not.
George C. Mallinckrodt, a mental health counselor who worked at DCI from 2008 to 2011, said guards “taunted, abused, beat, and tortured chronically mentally ill inmates on a regular basis,” hoping to provoke a response that would justify the use of force.
He described a June 2011 incident involving prisoner Joseph Swilling, who guards handcuffed behind his back before leading him to an off-camera area, where they threw him to the floor and repeatedly kicked him. The beating would have continued unchecked, but one of Mallinckrodt’s co-workers pounded on a window yelling, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” Yet out of fear of retaliation, that co-worker wrote in a subsequent incident report that “he/she did not see anything,” Mallinckrodt said in a Miami Herald editorial.
To keep counselors quiet, the “guards’ strategy was to simply leave the counselor alone with the inmate,” he wrote. “And, what we’ve seen is that the line officers who commit these acts are supported by their administrators, by their lieutenants, by the major, they’re all either condoning the activity, or they’re covering it up; it goes all the way to the warden.”
Mallinckrodt, however, refused to remain silent. “And so I developed incident reports and some of them involved guards in the unit and so, I started to get dirty looks and I was feeling the avalanche of abuse stories. And, my stress level was through the roof,” he continued. Mallinckodt was fired for taking long lunches, which he said was his coping strategy. That was a pretext, he claimed, “because they wanted me silenced.”
He said a standard investigation would be useless. “Clever guards, administrators, and wardens always put on a show for visiting VIP’s,” he noted. “I know this from the many dog and pony shows I have witnessed in my unit.”
Mallinckrodt wrote a book about his experiences with the FDOC, published in 2014 and appropriately titled Getting Away with Murder.
Prisoner Richard S. Mair, 40, committed suicide in DCI’s mental health unit on September 11, 2013. In a note written before he killed himself, he said he had been sexually assaulted and it was standard practice for guards to force prisoners in the unit to commit sex acts and to threaten them if they filed complaints. Mair’s note named guards who gambled on duty, sold marijuana and cigarettes, and stole money and property from prisoners. “If they don’t like you, they put you on a starvation diet,” he said in the note, which was found hidden in his pants after he hanged himself.
The Miami Herald reported there was “no evidence that the state inspector general’s probe into Mair’s death addressed any allegations in the suicide note.”
The career of Jerry Cummings exhibits the cultural problem of entrenched cronyism that permeates the FDOC and leads to abuses. Cummings was the warden at Tomoka Correctional Institution when guard Donna Fitzgerald was found dead, slumped over a pushcart with her pants pulled down on June 25, 2008; she had been murdered by prisoner Enoch Hall. [See: PLN, March 2010, p.1; Nov. 2008, p.50]. The FDOC’s inspector general’s office faulted Cummings and his top commanders for gross negligence and ineptitude that resulted in serious security breaches which contributed to Fitzgerald’s death.
Demotions and reassignments were handed down. Yet by the time Darren Rainey died, Cummings was the warden at DCI – a facility so out of control that it allowed guards to scald a prisoner to death without consequences or even a serious investigation. Instead, the FDOC suspended Cummings and several of his top staffers in May 2014 after an inspection found the prison’s chowhall was overrun with rats and roaches.
As the heat continued to be applied over Rainey’s death was reported, Secretary Crews took action to “restore integrity” to the state’s prison system. He fired Cummings in July 2014, hoping that action would “send a message.”
“It’s great the Department of Corrections is taking tighter control of the reins,” said ACLU of Florida director Simon. “But firing the warden, while not holding the guards who were clearly responsible for Darren Rainey’s brutal murder, and keeping them on the job and promoting them doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Simon was referring to two guards involved in Rainey’s death, Cornelius Thompson and Roland Clarke, who were promoted afterwards. Both subsequently resigned from the FDOC.
Rollin Austin, one of the guards fired in the “Friday Night Massacre” who was involved in Jordan-Aparo’s death, had a prior criminal record for theft and DUI, and previously had been demoted from captain to lieutenant for using excessive force. After Jordan-Aparo died he was again promoted to captain. His climb up the FDOC’s ladder was halted only after scrutiny of Jordan-Aparo’s death resulted in media attention and pressure from outside the department.
Indeed, outside pressure is apparently the only thing that is effective in making the FDOC take action. Following Ellington’s death at LCI, state prison officials were forced to conduct an investigation. In the course of that probe they uncovered the conduct of LCI assistant warden Marty Martinez, known as “Daddy” or “Marty” to his favorite female prisoners.
According to a 56-page FDOC inspector general’s report, Martinez would spend extended periods of time talking with young, pretty white or Hispanic women. Guards said prisoners would line up waiting to talk to “Daddy” and take turns visiting his office, passing him notes and requesting special favors. Jealous fights would ensue between prisoners vying for his attention.
“Nobody ever caught him in the act, but we all saw him locked in there with them,” a guard said in a sworn statement about female prisoners spending 10 to 60 minutes in Martinez’s office.
The investigation also noted that LCI guard John Meekins filed a police report stating Martinez had threatened him. “You’re going to get your ass beat in the parking lot after work,” the assistant warden allegedly told Meekins in front of two other guards after Meekins conducted a shakedown that resulted in the confiscation of contraband from two of Martinez’s alleged favorite prisoners.
As noted above, the FDOC’s leadership has changed seven times over the past nine years, which is viewed as a contributor to the department’s culture of corruption.
“We’ve gone through far too many secretaries at the Department of Corrections and that lack of continuity has created an atmosphere where people are able to believe they will outlive the tenure of the secretary,” said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, who previously chaired the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee.
One former Florida senator said the problems in the FDOC reach to the upper echelons of state government.
“You know the governor is now on his third Department of Corrections Secretary in less than four years, and you’ve had deaths in the prison system, you’ve had cover ups, you’ve had Inspector Generals who were trying to get that information out,” said Paula Dockery, who was a state senator for 16 years and served as chair of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, in an October 2014 news report. “You’ve got it going all the way up to the head Inspector General under the Governor, in the Governor’s office, and I think there’s some real problems with the way the administration is handling the Department of Corrections.”
Blowing the Whistle
The systemic abuse, corruption and misconduct in the FDOC was exposed not only by the Miami Herald and other news agencies, but also by the filing of a whistleblower lawsuit by several FDOC investigators. Their complaint detailed the circumstances surrounding Jordan-Aparo’s death and alleged that prisoners were beaten or tortured, guards smuggled drugs and other contraband in exchange for bribes and sexual favors, and guards used gang members as enforcers. They also said they had faced retaliation for trying to expose the corruption.
As Dockery noted, the cover-ups go beyond the FDOC. An anonymous letter sent by a person identifying himself as a “high-ranking” prison employee, addressed to Governor Scott, was stamped received by his Chief Inspector General, Melinda Miguel, on October 25, 2012. The letter contained “strikingly accurate details about the gruesome deaths” of prisoners Jordan-Aparo and Darren Rainey. Miguel, however, took no action on the matter, turning it over to FDOC inspector general Jeffrey Beasley.
Beasley’s office conducted a “cursory review,” finding some staff violations in Jordan-Aparos’ death and noting that Rainey’s death was being handled by Miami-Dade police. The review concluded that “this inquiry [will] be closed with no further action taken.”
In March 2014, FDOC investigators Aubrey Land, David Clark, Doug Glisson, John Ulm and James Padgett took the information they had concerning Jordan-Aparo’s death to Miguel, requesting whistleblower protection. She denied their request. She also denied that protection to Christina Bullins, a probation officer who tried to raise alarms after her brother, Joseph Auram, told her he feared for his safety after witnessing what happened to Jordan-Aparo while he was incarcerated at FCI.
The FDOC investigators said they faced “false and unwarranted” internal affairs complaints after they were denied whistleblower protection. Bullins was fired, but prison officials said her termination was due to taking unapproved leave time.
“Probation officer Bullins was an exemplary DOC employee who was treated rudely and not shown the same consideration as other employees with serious medical issues,” countered union spokesman Curtis. “It was convenient to dismiss her and try to keep her quiet.” Auram said guards told him he had cost his sister her job after they learned she was raising concerns about Jordan-Aparo’s death.
The investigators’ federal whistleblower suit was dismissed in March 2015, as the district court found they had raised their concerns as public employees, not as private citizens. Further, the court wrote, “Plaintiffs have cited no cases clearly establishing that a decision to deny whistle-blower status or protection to a complainant constitutes either an adverse employment action or the denial of a public benefit for purposes of a First Amendment retaliation claim.” The investigators filed an appeal with the Eleventh Circuit, but their appeal was dismissed on May 27, 2015 for lack of jurisdiction. Bullins was granted leave to amend her complaint and her claims remain pending. See: Land v. FDOC, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 4:14-cv-00347-WS-CAS.
While their legal challenge may not bear fruit, the investigators’ exposure of issues related to prisoner deaths, as well as the concurrent media coverage, lit a fire under both the FDOC and state lawmakers. The investigation into Darren Rainey’s death was reopened, while state and federal officials began reviewing Jordan-Aparo’s death and the unnatural deaths of 104 other Florida prisoners.
The Miami-Herald obtained emails from FDOC officials related to Rainey’s death, which showed great concern for how reports were worded but not much concern about the fact that he died.
“This is not necessarily true; we did not know what the cause of death is for ... Rainey,” stated an email from then-Warden Cummings to prison staffers. “I think we should wait until an autopsy report is completed before such information is published.”
Dena Tate, the senior health administrator at DCI, replied via email, “I agree, staff will be informed to watch verbiage when reporting incidents without final reports or investigations.”
“The email thread shows great concern with the verbiage used in speaking about the death and matters related to it,” said former FDOC Secretary McDonough. “The emails show little concern with the substance of the investigation.”
FDOC Leadership Changes ... Again
After months of scrutiny, FDOC Secretary Crews decided he had had enough and stepped down on November 24, 2014. “I have not resigned,” he said. “I am retiring from state government.”
The consensus was that Crews did not have time to effect the needed changes in the state’s prison system, and that fault with the pervasive staff misconduct did not lie with him.
“The last several secretaries have not been the problem,” observed Allison DeFoor, chairman of Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice. “Again, we’re still dancing around the elephant in the room – the problem is not at the secretary level. It’s structural.”
“Secretary Crews didn’t have enough time to make the type of lasting impact that I think is needed,” added state Senator Rob Bradley. “It’s going to take sustained, consistent leadership to make real change there.”
To lead the FDOC with “accountability and integrity,” Governor Scott appointed a “true reformer” to head the department: Julie L. Jones, who took office on January 5, 2015. Jones had worked for 26 years at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, including a role as Director of Law Enforcement, and five years as executive director of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Jones was retired from state government at the time she was appointed; her new position with the FDOC means she will receive a $160,000 salary plus $9,700 in monthly retirement benefits. She began with a 100-day plan and tough talk.
“Nobody in this system is going to get a free pass,” Jones said. “I will also maintain that zero tolerance for corruption, for just basic human rights, and how we treat people. A lot of the intimidation in this system is because they can get away with it. That’s not right.” In her first few months on the job she fired 51 FDOC employees.
After Jones took office, Crews backed her by stating the FDOC was underfunded and understaffed. The department had run an annual deficit of several hundred thousand dollars for the past few years. As a result, the physical infrastructure of FDOC buildings and the agency’s vehicles had deteriorated.
Crews said that as the state’s prison population expanded, the FDOC’s budget and staffing levels had decreased. The result was an increase in prisoner deaths, use of force incidents and attacks on guards.
According to FDOC statistical data, use of force incidents against prisoners increased over 90% from 2007 to 2012. In 2012, the department reported approximately 6,500 incidents involving use of force. Prisoner deaths grew from 249 in 2007 to 346 in 2014.
As pressure intensified due to staff misconduct and prisoner deaths, Secretary Crews said the governor’s office went into damage-control mode. “I guess you can say they were more concerned with the crafting and writing of news releases and that had little to do with the reality of what needed to be done to keep the institutions safe and secure,” he said.
The legislature weighed in when it went into session, holding hearings. In March 2015, three investigators and one former investigator from the FDOC’s inspector general’s office testified before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. They cited cases where they were instructed to withhold information from prosecutors, to close investigations involving politically-connected staff members and to avoid bringing criminal charges despite evidence of crimes.
“We are at the point where we can no longer police ourselves,” declared John Ulm, a veteran FDOC investigator. “We can’t do it alone. We need some oversight. The organized crime, the murder, the assaults, the victimization that goes on in there every day is horrendous.”
Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison said that in his two years with the FDOC’s inspector general’s office, he was twice told not to pursue investigations. He was called off a case involving the warden and assistant warden at the Calhoun Correctional Institution, who were accused of intimidating witnesses involving contraband being smuggled into the facility. The other case involved a nurse’s actions that resulted in “two inmates almost losing their lives” at the Jackson Correctional Institution. The charges were “covered up,” said Harrison, based on a relationship the warden was having with the nurse.
In addition, FDOC investigator Doug Glisson testified that he was told to drop a case against a prison employee who had a “Capitol connection.”
“There was a clear message there, and it had a chilling effect,” he said.
Further, investigator Land testified that “professional courtesy” was given as the reason for dropping a case against a prison guard whose brother worked under FDOC inspector general Jeffrey Beasley. The guard was accused of accepting bribes and sexual favors to give a woman access to a prisoner with whom she was having a romantic relationship.
While such testimony did not sit well with FDOC administrators, as it tarnished their image as public safety professionals, Secretary Jones pledged that employees who wanted to appear before the legislature would not be punished.
Yet just two days after Beasley was grilled by lawmakers, who afterwards called for his removal, the FDOC’s inspector general’s office imposed a gag order on its investigators – they were forced to sign confidentiality agreements prohibiting them from providing information to outsiders, even members of the legislature, concerning ongoing or closed cases. Any violation of the gag order could result in “immediate termination.”
“This right here is a slap in my face,” said state Senator Greg Evers, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “I have not asked the [inspector general] for a copy of anything that should not be a public record, and I am repulsed to think that he would send a letter to his staff to not release information that would be in the sunshine [public records law] otherwise.”
FDOC Secretary Jones was not pleased with the investigators who testified, calling them “disgruntled employees” who did “not have the best interests of the agency at heart.” She added, “I do not agree with the majority of the [investigators’] testimony,” saying it represented “one view of several incidents that happened years ago.”
Six FDOC investigators filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the confidentiality agreements that prohibited them from disclosing information. Their complaint was dismissed, however, and on December 28, 2015 the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal. See: Land v. Fla. Dep’t of Corr., 2015 Fla. App. LEXIS 19392 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App. 1st Dist. 2015).
Meanwhile, the state Senate passed a 51-page bill that would have created an independent oversight board to review the FDOC’s budget, discipline and investigations. The House whittled the bill down to 12 pages, removing the oversight board. In the end, the House ended its session three days early over a budget squabble, effectively killing the prison reform bill.
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to hire Superman who is going to be able to show up and reform the whole place,” opined state Rep. Carlos Trujillo. “I think it’s a combination of having additional oversight ... that truly drills down and identifies issues.”
With legislative reform efforts dead in the water, Governor Scott issued an executive order in May 2015 that requires the FDOC to maintain “a retaliation-free environment, both for staff and inmates.” Each of the department’s four regional directors are to make “at least two unannounced visits” to each prison quarterly. The order also requires tracking and reporting of use of force incidents.
Additionally, federal and state officials continue to investigate the deaths of Darren Rainey and other prisoners, and on October 15, 2015 a coalition of advocacy groups submitted a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), requesting intervention by that agency’s civil rights division. The letter was signed by 13 organizations – including the ACLU of Florida, Stop Prison Abuse Now, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Florida Institutional Legal Services, the Florida Justice Institute, the Florida Conference of NAACP Branches and the Human Rights Defense Center (the parent organization of Prison Legal News) – and urged the DOJ “to open a thorough investigation as to whether these conditions [in the prison system] and the brutal deaths that have resulted violate constitutional standards or statutory requirements such as those set forth in the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.”
Structural Defects Remain
“Right now, we do have facilities where people take liberties,” Secretary Jones acknowledged. “They’ve done it the way their daddy did it and their granddaddy did it.” She said additional staff training would help change the FDOC’s culture.
That remains to be seen. What is certain is that even in the high-profile atmosphere that has prevailed since Darren Rainey’s scalding death was first reported, not much has changed.
Columbia Correctional Institution prisoner Shurick Lewis, 41, was allegedly kicked by three guards on February 11, 2015, just a month after Jones took office; the assault left him bloodied and bruised on his cell floor with a broken nose and fractured facial bones. Two of the guards, Donald Sims and Sgt. Christopher Jernigan, were fired and charged with aggravated battery and failure to report.
In early April 2015, three current or former FDOC guards were charged with conspiracy to murder a former prisoner. Thomas J. Driver, 25, David E. Moran, 47, and Charles T. Newcomb, 42, were identified as Ku Klux Klan members. Driver and Moran were guards at the Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler at the time of their arrest; Newcomb had previously worked at the facility.
The men were caught on surveillance video with an FBI informant discussing a plot to kidnap the former prisoner, who was not identified, take him to a remote location and kill him “by injecting him in the neck with insulin.”
The FBI informant offered to contact a “professional” to take care of the victim. When contacted, the former prisoner said he had had an altercation with one of the guards. A homicide scene was staged, and Driver and Moran reportedly smiled when shown pictures of the former prisoner’s supposed death, before they were arrested.
Meanwhile, FDOC employees continue to assault prisoners. Guards William J. Ray and Corry B. Fletcher were charged in federal court in June 2015 with beating an unidentified FCI prisoner without justification and obstructing justice by lying to investigators. The following month, FDOC guard Justin Clemons and former guard Cody Gabbard were charged with battery, conspiracy to commit battery and falsifying official records, in connection with assaulting a prisoner at UCI.
A July 22, 2015 incident at the Sumter Correctional Institution resulted in guard Russell Sullivan being arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery for intentionally shoving a prisoner into a metal gate, causing facial lacerations and a broken tooth. Sullivan was released from jail on a $1,000 bond.
And in August 2015 two more guards, Kiree Twiggs and Jo Ann Lopez, were charged with using excessive force against prisoners. Both were fired from their positions at the Suwannee Correctional Institution. The improper use of force included spraying chemical agents on two prisoners and slamming them to the ground without provocation, then falsifying reports about the incident.
“The Florida Department of Corrections expects our officers to act with integrity, professionalism and courage,” Secretary Jones wrote in a press release after Sullivan was arrested. Apparently, however, such expectations are not always met.
These incidents beg the question – how many other abuses by staff still occur in Florida’s prison system and remain undisclosed because employees fear retaliation from their peers or superiors if they come forward? Recent news reports of rampant sexual misconduct and abuse involving guards at the Lowell Correctional Institution, published in December 2015, have continued to put FDOC officials on the defensive.
“It’s not a crisis situation. It’s much worse than that,” said Allison DeFoor with Florida State University’s Project on Accountable Justice. “This thing is really bad, we believe its structural. Not everybody in the system is bad, but how many bad apples does it take to ruin a basket?”
In response to the numerous deficiencies in the state’s prison system, FDOC officials have most recently sought an increase in the department’s budget to hire hundreds of additional guards. But simply adding more staff without addressing the long-standing culture of abuse and malfeasance will only contribute to the problem, not solve it.
Mallinckrodt, the former mental health counselor who lost his job at DCI after trying to expose abuses at that facility, summed up the issue when he said problems continue to occur in Florida prisons because the FDOC is “plagued by a deeply entrenched, multi-generational culture of corruption, retaliation, brutality and secrecy.”
Thus far, there is no evidence that that culture has changed.
[Update: In January 2016, the medical examiner’s office released a report that found Darren Rainey’s scalding death was “accidental.”]
Sources: Miami Herald, www.tampabay.com, News Service of Florida, www.naplesnews.com, www.tallahassee.com, Lakeland Ledger, www.wideawakeamerica.com, www.npr.org, www.huffingtonpost.com, Panama City News Herald, www.wtsp.com, www.news.wfsu.org, Orlando Weekly, www.times.com, www.washingtonpost.com, www.jcfloridan.com, www.wftv.com, http://georgemallinckrodt.blogspot.com, www.dailycommercial.com