It now appears that the forged documents used by two Florida murderers to get out of prison were created by a prison gang. That's what the Florida Department of Law Enforcement told a legislative committee this week as lawmakers began weighing how the criminal justice system might alter processing requirements to prevent future breaches. The revelation of the documents' origin underscores that prison security is always vulnerable to criminal ingenuity, and the real lesson may be the need for much better communication as new risks emerge.
The escape by Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker was no prison break in the classic sense. Sitting in Franklin Correctional Institution in the Panhandle, the pair simply waited for fake documents amending their life sentences to be delivered to an Orlando courthouse 280 miles away to turn the key and set them free. The pair was so confident of the ruse they even took the trouble to register as felons at the Orange County Jail and visit family before moving on. If not for the family of one of Jenkins' murder victims learning of his release and contacting authorities, the pair might have gotten away before their apprehension last month at a Panhandle motel.
But they weren't the first to use fake documents to get out. FDLE has uncovered at least five other similar attempts, including one in Tampa Bay in 2009. Nydeed Nashaddai now sits in Franklin Correctional on a 20-year sentence for the 16 hours he was free after fake court documents sprung him from the Pinellas County Jail, where he was being held on theft charges. Nashaddai was released after someone deposited a counterfeit judge's order in a public drop box at the St. Petersburg courthouse that was taken to the Clearwater courthouse and processed as authentic. In another case this year, the state filed charges against Jeffery Forbes, an inmate in Tomoka Correctional Institution whose ruse was discovered before he was released, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Many of the changes legislators are considering already have been made in many courthouses around the state. For example, after Nashaddai's stunt, Pinellas Clerk of Court Ken Burke instructed staff to verify court-created documents that arrive through a public drop box. Lawmakers this week discussed requiring prisons to confirm directly with a judge's office any notice of an earlier release date.
Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews told a Senate committee he will look to eliminate access to computers where he can, though inmates must have access to legal materials, often through a computer in the library. The corrections staff is reviewing 9,400 court sentencing orders issued since January 2010 but has found no more forgeries.
There's hope that a new electronic records system will be more secure. But criminal ingenuity isn't going away. Florida criminal justice officials should have candid conversations about the best way to quickly communicate security threats as they emerge and not wait until they have been repeated multiple times.