TALLAHASSEE — A House committee took aim at the state's chief prison inspector Tuesday, first accusing Jeffery Beasley of failing to properly investigate suspicious inmate deaths, then approving a plan to make it easier for the Department of Corrections' secretary to fire him and his staff.
"We have inmates that are being scalded to death in Miami-Dade County; inmates that are being pepper-sprayed and murdered, and nothing is being done about it,'' said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, referring to a series of reports in the Miami Herald at a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. "Ask yourself, why is this happening?"
DOC Secretary Julie Jones, who has been defending Beasley for months, continued to support her top investigator but seemed to acknowledge he will have to leave.
"Given the perception of all of the issues associated with the IGs office, I agree we need to make a change ultimately in leadership and structure in the IGs office,'' she told the Times/Herald.
The mission of the inspector general's office is to "protect and promote public integrity" and root out corruption in the department, which has been buffeted by investigations by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the statewide prosecutor and the FBI, as well as the recent arrests of two corrections officers for allegedly planning the murder of a former inmate.
The House and Senate have proposed separate bills that increase oversight at the agency. The Senate plan, SB 7020, proposes an independent oversight board with a small full-time staff, while the House bill, HB 7131, would create five regional boards, each staffed with DOC employees.
While Trujillo wants Beasley removed immediately, Jones said she hopes to wait until later in the year to give him time to complete investigations that she says will show his leadership at the agency is "not as bad as it would seem."
Trujillo, the committee chairman and sponsor of the House prison reform bill, noted that Beasley and his office have a history of dismissing claims and avoiding prosecutions when faced with allegations of abuse and official corruption.
He blamed the close-knit agency hierarchy for allowing investigators to be promoted "not based on merit but based on cronyism."
Trujillo blasted reports produced by the inspector general's office as inadequate and incomplete, saying they failed to hold bad actors accountable for "killing people."
"Every single person who touched those reports, if they didn't come forward with the information, they hid the information, or they lied about the information, they should be held accountable,'' Trujillo said.
The amended bill would remove all employees of the inspector general's office from the state career service system, allowing them to be hired and fired at will. Under current law, the employees must undergo a lengthy administrative proceeding before they can be dismissed for cause.
But Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, warned that the changes could have the unintended effect of shielding those who are complicit in corruption while allowing the secretary to fire those who blow the whistle on them.
"I'm an advocate for independent oversight," Rodriguez said. "This gives even less independent oversight."
Christina Bullins, a former probation officer who sought whistleblower protection after she was fired after attempting to call attention to the gassing death of inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo at Franklin Correctional Insitution, agreed that the wrong people could be targeted by Trujillo's bill.
"I would like to see an inspector general's office where good men and women find that's a safe haven," she said.
Trujillo told the Times/Herald that "the goal is in no way to go after whistleblowers."
State Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, the sponsor of the Senate prison reform bill, said he also has lost confidence in the ability of Beasley to root out corruption at the agency and warned that the investigations and lawsuits Jones wants him to work on "will continue to mount unless new leadership is involved."
Another amendment adopted by the House Judiciary Committee would create a pilot program to give body cameras to officers at Union Correctional Institution –- one of the prisons with the highest numbers of use of force in the state. The officers would be required to wear body cameras every time they use force against an inmate. The cost to the state would be $124,000 and video would be archived in a cloud-based server, and would be subject to the state's public records law, Trujillo said.
Rodriguez warned, however, there was nothing in the bill that would penalize prisons for failing to record all use-of-force encounters or prevent supervisors from dictating what does and doesn't get recorded.
Trujillo countered that the goal of the pilot program is to "see if the cameras change behavior, or maybe they don't."
Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, said he was "very concerned about the privacy rights of the inmates" in light of Florida's "very aggressive Sunshine law." He said he was less concerned about the ability of the state to have access to the video and more concerned about video showing up on YouTube.
The House bill also requires a review of all hiring practices, employee retention policies and employee training, Trujillo said.
Jones said she is working on providing her own additional oversight of her agency with a series of recent changes. Among them is a plan to centralize the discipline of excessive and unjustified use of force, shifting it from the prisons to a panel of agency executives in Tallahassee who have, in some cases, recommended firing people rather than putting them on administrative leave.
She is also implementing a plan to add psychiatric screenings for people who apply to work as corrections officers.
Finally, Jones said, she is planning to replace the contract that provides inmates with MP3 audio players with one that could supply them with scaled-down tablets allowing limited access to email and Skype with family members, access to thousands of online instructional courses and the ability to file grievances electronically.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.