LARGO — The allegations were startling: that three black detention deputies at the Pinellas County Jail were treating white inmates harshly while favoring black inmates.
A five-month internal investigation by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office that was released this week never proved or disproved claims of racial preference — claims that were made by inmates and fellow deputies.
But in the end, two detention deputies were suspended after investigators determined they had violated policies governing the treatment of inmates. The third deputy — around whom many of the complaints swirled — resigned in February before the investigation was finished.
Former Sgt. Lesley Rowe was demoted to deputy and given an 80-hour suspension for violating agency policies. Deputy Trina Landrum also received an 80-hour suspension for the same reason. Former deputy Melinda Mason resigned.
Investigators said Rowe witnessed Mason, her subordinate, belittling inmates over minor infractions, but Rowe didn't address it. Rowe also admitted she ordered deputies to withhold food from inmates who were talking during breakfast, which contradicts a Sheriff's Office policy.
Investigators determined Landrum witnessed Mason telling inmates to dump their food trays as punishment and didn't report it, and also "threatened" inmates that they would have to forfeit their meal for talking.
Rowe declined to be interviewed for this article. Landrum and Mason didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
According to the 925-page report, the allegations came to light in October when a jail corporal approached a captain and said three deputies in a housing facility for female inmates wanted out of the unit because inmates were being mistreated.
One of those deputies, Angela Fisher, had been keeping notes about questionable incidents and told investigators she had considered resigning because of the stress of working with Rowe and Mason.
"It's incredibly stressful … Nobody wants to go to an environment where you're looked at differently or you have to hear people belittle people or yell at them for hours at a time and stand there and listen to them say these things," Fisher told investigators.
Fisher and several other deputies said they didn't report the problems because they were afraid of retaliation by Rowe, a sergeant. At least five deputies said they believed Mason, Rowe and Landrum, or some combination thereof, were favoring black inmates and only came down hard on white inmates.
One deputy said some black inmates referred to the trio as the "Black Squadron" and seemed to believe they'd get preferential treatment from them.
However, that deputy said Landrum had addressed that issue with inmates at one point, making it clear she would not play favorites.
Most complaints centered on Mason, who deputies and inmates said had a habit of lengthy and degrading tirades against inmates. The incidents reported about her included:
• That she took off her handcuffs, pepper spray and Taser, and challenged two different inmates to fight in separate incidents. Investigators said that put other deputies at risk and was contradictory to agency policy, which encourages jailers to de-escalate aggression.
• One inmate said she was forced to stand and listen to Mason degrade her for more than an hour and a half after she moved to a different bunk. There is no policy assigning women to specific bunks in that unit.
• The same woman said Mason told other inmates she was a snitch. She said she was "scared to death" of Mason and Landrum, and thought Rowe was part of their "team."
• Another inmate said Mason screamed at her for more than an hour and a half, threatened to hit her, and encouraged other inmates to criticize her.
Mason told investigators that she did not try to engage inmates in fist fights. She denied some of the allegations and admitted others, ultimately agreeing that she had violated agency policies.
Landrum told investigators that she had been fair and just with inmates and had never made an inmate dump a tray. She said she only told inmates they could be sent out of the chow hall because that was Rowe's directive.
Rowe admitted violating agency policies, saying she felt some of her orders, such as dumping food trays, were based on discretion. She acknowledged that she witnessed Mason being verbally aggressive at times and failed to handle those situations properly.
All three deputies were reassigned. When asked how things were in the unit with their absence, the deputy who had thought about resigning had this to say: "Peaceful."