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.
"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 and others reported they pursued the investigations after being told to back off but were then threatened or retaliated against -- often becoming the subject of an internal investigation themselves.
"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."
After the meeting, Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones dismissed the testimony and and said it "represents one view of several incidents that happened years ago."
She said she was disappointed allegations presented to the committee were absent "all known facts" and "represents one view of several incidents that happened years ago."
"The cases mentioned, when appropriate, were presented to the State Attorney's Office for prosecution, and declined due to a lack of probable cause or sufficient evidence," she said in the statement.
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."
Senate Committee Chairman Greg Evers, R-Baker, 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 Julie Jones, and the inspector general's office, were "dragging their feet" in their promises to reform the agency and said it may be time for a special legislative committee to be assembled to further investigate the claims of employees.
Evers also reminded the committee Jones last week assured them if anyone from her department wanted to publicly criticize the agency they would not be retaliated against.
"Apparently we can stumble across more than what the investigations have found in the past few years by just asking the questions of the right people," Evers said after the meeting. "Yes, we've got a crisis."
The inspectors also directed their criticism to the inspector general's office, whom they said would suppress criminal charges and interfere investigations of high-ranking prison officials.
Jones has acknowledged the agency has been chronically underfunded and understaffed but has repeatedly defended the performance of Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, who is hired by the Chief Inspector General but reports to the DOC secretary.
"I have the utmost confidence in the abilities of the Office of Inspector General and Department staff to take decisive action in the interest of safety and security for both themselves and the inmates in our custody," she said in her statement Tuesday.
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 and inspectors Doug Glisson and Aubrey Land filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit last year claiming Inspector General Jeffrey Beasley instructed them to back off an investigation involving a possible coverup 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 stories about why he was gassed.
The suit was dismissed by a federal judge last week but is on appeal.
Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison, a former DOC inspector, said during the two years he worked in the Inspector General's Office he was told twice not to pursue cases he believed could sustain potential criminal charges.
In one case, he said "upper-level management" told him not to bring allegations to a state attorney about a warden and assistant warden at Calhoun Correctional Institution getting paid for allowing contraband into the facility.
In another case, at Jackson Correctional Institution, allegations of medical neglect by a nurse resulted in "two inmates almost losing their lives" but the charges were "covered up," Harrison said, "based on a relationship that the warden was having with the nurse."
"They tended to want the department to not go the criminal route but the administrative route to make it look favorable on the department," he said. "Criminal charges filed against a warden or assistant warden would be a black eye on DOC."
Glisson told the committee despite apparent evidence of medical staff violations, the agency did not sustain any charges because the suspect had a "capital connection," a reference to a high-ranking friend in the state Capitol.
Ulm testified 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.
Land acknowledged while there are scores of good corrections officers within the prison system, the culture of corruption and staff shortages 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, which 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.
Glisson, a supervisor in the Inspector General's Office, said despite apparent evidence of medical staff violations in a criminal case he investigated into the suspicious death of an inmate Jefferson Correctional Institution, he was told to close the criminal investigation.
"I received phone call, from the upper management, to close that criminal case, based on a conversation with the State Attorney's Office and we would handle that case administratively," he said.
In another case, the found a doctor at a prison had knowingly hired another doctor whose licensed had been revoked but the agency did not sustain any charges.
Finally, they were investigating problems with a high-ranking official at a training academy and it was discovered people in DOC's central office knew what was going. When they moved forward with the investigation, Glisson and his investigator were called into Beasley's office.
"We were warned that there was a 'capital connection' on this individual," a reference to a high-ranking friend in the state Capitol, he said. "There was a clear message there and it's had a chilling effect."
Two days later, the Inspector General's Office told him any information they needed for the investigation they were to "go through the very person who was named as a suspect."
"Inspectors and investigators are supposed to have unfettered access to documentation," Glisson said, concluding the order to go through the suspect "was very inappropriate."
He said even FDLE is not always a backstop to allegations of corruption. He said he was told because FDLE has oversight over the training academies, it would investigate the charges.
"Three or four days later, I get a call from upper management saying that the person had gone over to FDLE and got an investigative slap on the wrist," Glisson recalled. "In other words, FDLE was not going to look at it."
Land commended the committee for a pushing bill to create an independent oversight board to review allegations without interference from department management.
"We need leadership," Land said. "We've got thousands in the shadows wearing the brown and tan uniform that are honorable men and women. They do a job that few would wantw for a salary that very few would tolerate. They go to work everyday. They are shorthanded. They have a difficult time doing the things they need to do with the manpower that they have."
Jones agrees, for example, in some prisons the inspectors assigned to investigation are too close to the staff working there.
"We have circumstances where we do have individuals who have grown up in an institution and now are in a role to investigate their peers," she said. "That is not good."
She was adamant that the inspectors have no authority to pursue allegations of corruption unless they get approval from their supervisors.
"Their job is not to pick and choose," she said. "They need to work through their chain of command. You have some individuals that want to just do the big stuff and don't want to do the day-to-day mining the shop."
Land countered, however, the approach makes sense at an agency where corruption and contraband is under control but he believes in Florida's prisons the approach is "too little, too late."
"I'm not an FDLE wanna-be,'' Land said. "I'm an inspector in the Inspector General's Office and we've got organized crime gangs operating in every prison in the state. We've got a black market of contraband that's a million-dollar industry and prison staff bringing it in. Until you take that out of the equation, you can't deal with the small stuff.
"If you want to take the head off the snake, you've got to kill it," he said.