Over the past year, the Florida Department of Corrections has come under fire for inmate deaths, allegations of abuse by prison guards, cover-ups, understaffing and officer shift issues. Today in Tallahassee, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee heard firsthand from some of those officials who have themselves come under retaliation simply by reporting such incidents.
First up for the hour-long hearing was Doug Glissom, who works in the inspector general’s office.
He mentioned the issue of inmate Quentin Faust, who complained of seizures and sought medical treatment before dying at Jackson Correctional Institution in 2012. Glissom said that the IG’s office found “multiple violations” in Faust’s treatment after his death was listed as suspicious. Glissom said that after he opened a criminal case on the matter, he was told to close it based on a conversation with the office of attorney general.
A second case involved a physician with a revoked medical license who was hired by another doctor inside the Department of Corrections in 2010. Grissom said the case died out, even though the doctor inside the department. admitted that he had hired the physician with the revoked license, which is against state law.
A third case involved allegations of problems at a training center academy that involved a high-ranking official inside the Department of Corrections. Glissom said that once they had identified that official as a suspect, they were called to the office of the Inspector General and told he had a “Capitol connection.”
“There was a clear message there,” Glissom said, creating what he called a chilling effect on the investigation. He said he was later told from “upper management” that anything that he needed to obtain for the investigation would have to go through the same person who was named as a subject. Several days later, he was told again by upper management that the person had gone over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and given “a slap on the wrist.”
Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison previously worked inside the inspector general’s office at the Department of Corrections from 2010-2012. He discussed an investigation where there were charges being made against a warden and assistant warden at one correctional institution. “We uncovered some evidence that would have indicated again, we could have charged criminally on it,” he said. But he said he was instructed by “upper-level management in the IG’s office,” not to pursue those charges with the State Attorney’s Office.
“I come from a law enforcement background, not so much administrative investigation background,” Harrison said. “I was used to (the concept that) if someone broke the law, you took the charges to the State Attorney’s Office and you proceed forward. That didn’t appear to be the case in the inspector general’s office. It was quite frustrating for me.”
The next speaker said the incidents inside Florida prisons compared to Abu Ghraib, the infamous Baghdad prison where Iraqi prisoners were subjected to torture and abuse by members of the U.S. military in 2004.
“We’ve heard that these are isolated incidents,” said Aubrey Land, a member of the DOC’s inspector general’s office since 2006. ” I believe this committee, you have brought this to light, and it’s not going to go away.”
Land emphasized that “in the shadows” were honorable men and women who work in the department. “They do a job that few would want for a salary that very few would tolerate.” But he said that too often DOC staffers had done the wrong thing, bringing shame to everyone. Calling the Department of Corrections an agency “in crisis,” Land said the agency is broken but can be repaired.
“We need leadership. We need a true direction. Our ship has been adrift way too long,” he surmised. “We need to set a course and maintain that course.”
Some prison staffers also spoke out.
Sgt. Andrea Shaw said she had her shifts on weekends changed with no explanation. She also discussed the danger at times with just a couple of prison employees responsible for supervising over 140 prisoners at a time.
A bill that has been proposed in the Criminal Justice Committee would increase training standards for corrections workers, create anonymous ways for prisoners and staff to report abuses, require additional inspections of facilities, and establish new criminal penalties for those charged with abuse. Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley has proposed an amendment that would create an oversight board that would create performance standards for all of the state’s 142 correctional facilities, as well as conduct annual reviews to ensure prisons and work camps meet their goals.
Glissom, Land and another official who spoke on Tuesday, John Ulm, were denied whistleblower protections a year ago after they spoke out. But current DOC head Julie Jones told Chairman Greg Evers that the men would not be retaliated against for their testimony today.