Florida prison inspectors turn over rocks, find little wrongdoing

By JULIE K. BROWN and MARY ELLEN KLAS jbrown@MiamiHerald.com Published Feb. 7, 2015

Sometime in August 2013, Department of Corrections senior investigators Aubrey Land and John Ulm sat down with their boss, Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, to talk about possible corruption in the department.

That day and in coming days, they detailed how they had found evidence that corrections officers had lied and had falsified reports, and how some of their fellow prison inspectors may have sabotaged an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into the 2010 death of an inmate at Franklin Correctional Institution.

Beasley did not seem overly concerned, one person who was at that initial meeting recalled, and instead complained that investigators were spending too much time with FDLE agents, who often turned every case into a “longevity’’ project. The comment didn’t sit well with FDLE special agent Ed King, a 25-year law enforcement officer who was in the room.

Department of Corrections Inspector General Jeffrey Beasley during a hearing with the Florida Senate.

“Son,” King is said to have replied, “you ain’t in Atmore, Alabama no more. We don’t just walk by and kick a rock every now and then. We turn them over to see what’s under them around here.’’

Turning over rocks is the job of the DOC’s inspector general, whose mission is to “protect and promote public integrity” and root out corruption in the department. “I think he is doing a great job,” Beasley’s boss at the Department of Corrections, Julie Jones, told the Herald/Times recently.

But, according to records reviewed by the Miami Herald, Beasley and his office have a history of dismissing allegations and avoiding prosecutions when it comes to suspicious inmate deaths, and allegations of abuse and official corruption.

For the past eight months, the Herald and other news organizations have reported on a string of brutal, unnatural inmate deaths, on smuggling of drugs and other contraband by staff, and on purported cover-ups of wrongdoing.

Like pieces of a puzzle, these allegations and others have started to fit together for some members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, who have concluded the nation’s third-largest prison system has demonstrated it is incapable of policing itself.

Now, a long-shot idea advanced by reformers is gaining momentum. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has filed a bill to undertake a historic restructuring of Florida’s prison system by creating an independent oversight board — with its own investigators — to hold DOC accountable. He has the support of a majority of lawmakers on the key Senate committee, according to various interviews, and a growing number of his colleagues in the House and Senate.

“We can rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic or we can change how we’re doing business fundamentally,’’ said Bradley, a former prosecutor, in an interview with the Herald last week. “To me, that demands an independent oversight of this agency at this point.’’

The oversight board, a concept used by some other states, would be a radical shift for the Department of Corrections, which is Florida’s largest agency with 22,000 employees and 101,000 inmates. The DOC inspector general, unlike most other IGs in the state bureaucracy, can handle both administrative and criminal investigations. The change is being proposed at a time when the U.S. Department of Justice is gathering reports of excessive force, unnatural death and medical neglect in Florida prisons as possible violations of inmates’ civil rights.

“I’m not interested in talking about budget issues — more money for this and more money for that — until we address some fundamental structural flaws that need to be corrected,’’ Bradley said.

Those flaws became apparent in numerous cases reviewed by the Herald and in interviews with dozens of current and former employees, inmates and their families.

‘Voice for the people’

In several suspicious death cases, the DOC’s inspectors failed to act on grievances and warnings from other inmates, stalled investigations or allowed them to remain open indefinitely. Officers accused of questionable behavior — such as repeatedly gassing inmates and explaining their actions in virtual copy-and-paste incident reports — were often not disciplined and, sometimes, promoted. And when people tried to go above the DOC to complain to Gov. Rick Scott’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, those complaints were sometimes relayed back to the DOC inspector general, only to be dismissed.

“These inspectors are supposed to be the voice for the people and they are not,’’ said Naomi Washington, a Fort Lauderdale woman whose brother, Jerry Washington, died at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in September 2013, a month after filing a grievance accusing a corrections officer of groping his buttocks. She believes her brother was poisoned but the IG’s office would not investigate her claim.

“If you ask me, they aren’t doing their job, and it’s them that should be locked up because these are crimes and they are getting away with it,’’ she said.

Peter Sleasman of Florida Institutional Legal Services, a firm representing inmate families, believes that too often the DOC conducts cursory investigations and quickly closes cases without asking obvious questions or doing much of anything. He recalled a case at Dade Correctional when the DOC inspector came out to investigate an allegation of a mentally ill inmate being abused. The inmate was too ill to be interviewed and the accused officer exercised his rights under state law and declined to give a statement.

“Basically, the officer just said ‘I’m not going to talk to you,’ and that was it — the inspector closed the case,’’ Sleasman said.

Here is a sampling of cases detailed by The Herald that call into question the inspector general’s vigilance:

Beasley at the helm

In the center of these cases is the DOC inspector general’s office headed by Beasley, 41, once a lawman in Escambia, Ala. He began his FDLE career monitoring slot machines and gaming applications in Broward County, then moved to Tallahassee to become an FDLE special agent supervisor in the statewide intelligence office.

He was hired as DOC’s inspector general in October 2011.

Beasley was not in that job at the time Jordan-Aparo died, and he mentioned that fact when questioned about the case this past week by the Herald. But Beasley was in charge when DOC inspectors Land and Ulm reopened the case.

The inspectors allege in their lawsuit that Beasley has told his subordinates to stick to the “low-lying fruit” — meaning punish the easy, low-level culprits and then move on — and that at a DOC Christmas party in 2013 he warned them to back off the Jordan-Aparo case or they would regret it.

They say they then went to Mike Crews, DOC secretary at the time, who advised them to go to Miguel.

In an interview, Beasley said it was FDLE, not the DOC, that conducted the death investigation and found there was no wrongdoing by corrections officers.

Beasley defended not investigating the officers who put Rogers in the same Santa Rosa cell as the much smaller and less-menacing Martin. At least 28 inmates, interviewed separately, told DOC investigators that multiple prisoners, including Rogers, warned guards that night that Martin was going to be harmed if they didn’t get him out of the cell. DOC inspectors didn’t delve into that.

The officers were not disciplined, Beasley told the Herald, because “there was no policy and procedure violation at the time.”

During a grilling last week in front of the Criminal Justice Committee, Beasley denied that inspectors and others who find suspicious activity are deliberately thwarted or face retaliation.

But several legislators have their doubts.

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, the chairman of the committee, said he and others should not “have to rely on whistleblowers to tell us what’s going on.”

Two days after the committee questioned Beasley, DOC Secretary Jones sent out an internal memo. It states all investigators working in the inspector general’s office must sign confidentiality agreements. The agreements were attached, along with instructions to sign by Feb. 19. Under the terms of the document, investigators are prohibited from discussing any cases, including those that are closed and are a public record, with anyone, which would include legislators. Violators face firing.

Questioned about the memo, Evers said he viewed it as an attempt “to hide or withhold information.” He said he wants the policy “repealed or revised.”

The department says the agreement does not “prohibit any employee from reporting misconduct” but acknowledged that inspectors are banned from ever speaking about closed cases that become public records — even after they leave the department.

Miguel wasn’t consulted on the memo, according to the governor’s office.

Jones, the current DOC secretary, isn’t the only one standing by Beasley.

Crews, Jones’ predecessor, said that despite the string of reports about suspicious inmate deaths and questionable investigations, he retained confidence in Beasley and the way his office was run. Crews did, however, near the end of his tenure, offload the investigation of virtually all inmate deaths to outside agencies — primarily FDLE — after the Rainey case and others made headlines. Previously, a much smaller number of cases went to FDLE.

“I am not making any excuses for officers who break the rules,’’ Crews said in an interview with the Herald, but he noted that Beasley did a good job with the resources he had.