BY JULIE K. BROWN
AND MARY ELLEN KLAS
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — Sometime in August 2013, Department of Corrections senior investigators Aubrey Land and John Ulm sat down with their boss, Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, to talk about possible corruption in the department.
That day and in coming days, they detailed how they had found evidence that corrections officers had lied and had falsified reports, and how some of their fellow prison inspectors may have sabotaged an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into the 2010 death of an inmate at Franklin Correctional Institution.
Beasley did not seem overly concerned, one person who was at that initial meeting recalled, and instead complained that investigators were spending too much time with FDLE agents, who often turned every case into a longevity' project. The comment didn't sit well with FDLE special agent Ed King, a 25-year law enforcement officer who was in the room.
"Son," King is said to have replied, "you ain't in Atmore, Alabama, no more. We don't just walk by and kick a rock every now and then. We turn them over to see what's under them around here.'' Beasley had worked in law enforcement in Alabama.
Turning over rocks is the job of the DOC's inspector general, whose mission is to "protect and promote public integrity" and root out corruption in the department. "I think he is doing a great job," Beasley's boss at the Department of Corrections, Julie Jones, told the Herald/Times recently.
But, according to records reviewed by the Miami Herald, Beasley and his office have a history of dismissing allegations and avoiding prosecutions when it comes to suspicious inmate deaths and allegations of abuse and official corruption.
For the past eight months, the Herald and other news organizations have reported on a string of brutal, unnatural inmate deaths, on smuggling of drugs and other contraband by staff, and on purported coverups of wrongdoing.
Like pieces of a puzzle, these allegations and others have started to fit together for some members of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, who have concluded the nation's third-largest prison system has demonstrated it is incapable of policing itself.
Now, a long-shot idea advanced by reformers is gaining momentum. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, has filed a bill to undertake a historic restructuring of Florida's prison system by creating an independent oversight board — with its own investigators — to hold DOC accountable. He has the support of a majority of lawmakers on the key Senate committee, according to various interviews, and a growing number of his colleagues in the House and Senate.
"We can rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic or we can change how we're doing business fundamentally,'' said Bradley, a former prosecutor, in an interview with the Herald last week. "To me, that demands an independent oversight of this agency at this point.''
The oversight board, a concept used by some other states, would be a radical shift for the Department of Corrections, which is Florida's largest agency with 22,000 employees and 101,000 inmates. The DOC inspector general, unlike most other IGs in the state bureaucracy, can handle both administrative and criminal investigations. The change is being proposed at a time when the U.S. Department of Justice is gathering reports of excessive force, unnatural death and medical neglect in Florida prisons as possible violations of inmates' civil rights.
"I'm not interested in talking about budget issues — more money for this and more money for that — until we address some fundamental structural flaws that need to be corrected,'' Bradley said.
Those flaws became apparent in numerous cases reviewed by the Herald and in interviews with dozens of current and former employees, inmates and their families.
'Voice for the people'
In several suspicious death cases, the DOC's inspectors failed to act on grievances and warnings from other inmates, stalled investigations or allowed them to remain open indefinitely. Officers accused of questionable behavior — such as repeatedly gassing inmates and explaining their actions in virtual copy-and-paste incident reports — were often not disciplined and, sometimes, promoted. And when people tried to go above the DOC to complain to Gov. Rick Scott's chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, those complaints were sometimes relayed back to the DOC inspector general, only to be dismissed.
"These inspectors are supposed to be the voice for the people and they are not,'' said Naomi Washington, a Fort Lauderdale woman whose brother, Jerry Washington, died at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in September 2013, a month after filing a grievance accusing a corrections officer of groping his buttocks. She believes her brother was poisoned but the IG's office would not investigate her claim.
"If you ask me, they aren't doing their job, and it's them that should be locked up because these are crimes and they are getting away with it,'' she said.
Peter Sleasman of Florida Institutional Legal Services, a firm representing families of inmates, believes that too often the DOC conducts cursory investigations and quickly closes cases without asking obvious questions or doing much of anything. He recalled a case at Dade Correctional when the DOC inspector came out to investigate an allegation of a mentally ill inmate being abused. The inmate was too ill to be interviewed and the accused officer exercised his rights under state law and declined to give a statement.
"Basically, the officer just said, 'I'm not going to talk to you,' and that was it — the inspector closed the case,'' Sleasman said.
Here is a sampling of cases detailed by the Herald that call into question the inspector general's vigilance:
• Ricky Martin: On March 30, 2012, the 24-year-old was found hog-tied, stomped and slashed to death in a confinement cell at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution. His cellmate of only a few hours, Shawn Rogers, had been boisterously announcing he intended to kill Martin hours before the attack, but the officers walking the dorm that day said they neither heard nor saw anything out of the ordinary.
Months before his death, Martin had asked the inspector general for protection, claiming that officers and inmates were threatening him because he snitched on guards who were hosting fight clubs in the cafeteria at the Northwest Florida Reception Center.
More than a dozen inmates, in sworn testimony, said they warned corrections officers the night of Martin's death that he was either about to commit suicide or be killed by the much-larger Rogers, a lifer who had a long track record of violently abusing fellow prisoners. Despite the matching statements of various inmates and video footage showing an officer pausing at the cell and peering inside, the inspector general concluded that no one, other than Rogers, did anything wrong, so there was no punishment to mete out. Rogers is now charged with capital murder.
• Darren Rainey: In June 2012, the 50-year-old collapsed and died after being locked for as long as two hours in a closet-like, scalding-hot shower at Dade Correctional Institution's Transitional Care Unit. He had angered guards by defecating in his cell. Afterward, an inmate who said he was instructed to clean up the shower cell — and discard pieces of Rainey's flesh in the process — wrote a letter saying what had happened was a crime and he wanted to be interviewed. He wasn't.
Records indicate no one asked why Rainey had been placed in a shower for such a long time, why the shower had been rigged in such unusual fashion — its controls were in an adjacent closet — or why he was placed in that particular shower, which was not the closest to his cell. The investigation was suspended.
A different TCU inmate, Harold Hempstead, fired off a series of grievances saying the shower had been specially rigged to inflict pain on inmates in the TCU, where mentally ill prisoners are housed. He said that it had been used on other inmates and that Rainey had begged for mercy. His grievances, sent after he was shipped to another prison and after the DOC's investigation was suspended, were disregarded and he was not interviewed.
• Richard Mair: In August 2013, inmate Mair, 43, wrote Gov. Scott, the DOC inspector general and the warden at Dade Correctional, alleging that officers in the prison's mental health unit were physically and sexually abusing inmates. The inspector general investigated and closed the case within one month, saying there was nothing to substantiate Mair's allegations.
Mair, who said he had been threatened by the guards, was initially too afraid to provide names because he thought he would be killed. A month later, Mair was found hanging in his cell from an air conditioning vent in the TCU. A note in his shorts outlined how guards — he now named them — forced inmates to perform sex acts, gambled on duty, stole inmate property and promoted racial hatred by forcing white and black inmates to engage in fights for the staff's enjoyment.
The letter Mair sent to the governor's office was referred to Miguel, the governor's inspector general. She turned it over to the DOC's inspector general, but by that time Mair was dead.
Rather than open a posthumous investigation, DOC inspector Michael Meaney closed the case. He said the agency had already looked into Mair's complaints and could not substantiate them now because Mair's death made him "unavailable for a follow-up interview.'' No officers were disciplined, investigated or questioned about Mair's allegations.
• Damion Foster: Mair's neighbor in the TCU, Foster may have been the last person to speak with him before his death. Shortly after Mair was found hanging, Foster was transferred to Martin Correctional Institution and then, eventually, to Charlotte Correctional. Eight months after Mair's death, on May 21, 2014, Foster died during a violent cell extraction at Charlotte.
There was no evidence of Foster ever being questioned about Mair, although he had submitted grievances making similar complaints about sexual and physical abuse by officers at Dade Correctional.
• Randall Jordan-Aparo: In the spring of 2013, two DOC inspectors discovered problems with the investigation into a three-year-old death at Franklin Correctional. Jordan-Aparo, 27, collapsed on the concrete floor of his confinement cell. At the time, a medical examiner had ascribed it to natural causes — the result of a debilitating lung condition.
While looking into unrelated misconduct at Franklin, Department of Corrections senior investigators Aubrey Land, John Ulm and colleague Doug Glissom said they learned that corrections officers had repeatedly blasted the inmate with tear gas and pepper spray, then lied about the chain of events in their reports. But what was equally disturbing to the inspectors, they said, was that the DOC investigators assigned to the case in 2010 failed to turn over evidence to FDLE and the medical examiner. That evidence included a video, which showed that Jordan-Aparo had not done anything to merit being gassed. Witnesses told them Jordan-Aparo had begged to be taken to the hospital for his worsening condition. Instead, they unleashed the chemicals.
The inspectors told their boss, Beasley, but they claim he sabotaged their effort to expose what happened. They then turned to Miguel, Scott's chief inspector general, who outranks Beasley in the state hierarchy. She declined to give them whistle-blower status, which would have afforded them protection from retaliation. They claim in a lawsuit they did face retaliation.
After the Herald reported the story, one officer involved in Jordan-Aparo's death was fired. The FDLE and FBI have re-opened investigations.
Beasley at the helm
In the center of these cases is the DOC inspector general's office headed by Beasley, 41, once a lawman in Escambia, Ala. He began his FDLE career monitoring slot machines and gaming applications in Broward County, then moved to Tallahassee to become an FDLE special agent supervisor in the statewide intelligence office.
He was hired as DOC's inspector general in October 2011.
Beasley was not in that job at the time Jordan-Aparo died, and he mentioned that when questioned about the case this past week by the Herald. But Beasley was in charge when DOC inspectors Land and Ulm reopened the case.
The inspectors allege in their lawsuit that Beasley has told his subordinates to stick to the "low-lying fruit" — meaning punish the easy, low-level culprits and move on — and that at a DOC Christmas party in 2013 he warned the inspectors to back off the Jordan-Aparo case or they would regret it.
They say they then went to Mike Crews, DOC secretary at the time, who advised them to go to Miguel.
In an interview, Beasley said it was FDLE, not the DOC, that conducted the death investigation and found there was no wrongdoing by corrections officers.
Beasley defended not investigating the officers who put Rogers in the same Santa Rosa cell as the much smaller and less-menacing Martin. At least 28 inmates, interviewed separately, told DOC investigators that multiple prisoners, including Rogers, had warned guards that night that Martin was going to be harmed if they didn't get him out of the cell. DOC inspectors didn't delve into that.
The officers were not disciplined, Beasley told the Herald, because "there was no policy and procedure violation at the time."
During a grilling last week in front of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Beasley denied that inspectors and others who find suspicious activity are deliberately thwarted or face retaliation.
But several legislators have their doubts.
Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, the chairman of the committee, said he and others should not "have to rely on whistle-blowers to tell us what's going on."
Two days after the committee questioned Beasley, DOC Secretary Jones sent out an internal memo. It states all investigators working in the inspector general's office must sign confidentiality agreements. The agreements were attached, along with instructions to sign by Feb. 19. Under the terms of the document, investigators are prohibited from discussing any cases, including those that are closed and are a public record, with anyone, which would include legislators. Violators face firing.
Asked about the memo, Evers said he viewed it as an attempt "to hide or withhold information." He said he wants the policy "repealed or revised."
The department says the agreement does not "prohibit any employee from reporting misconduct" but acknowledged that inspectors are banned from ever speaking about closed cases that become public records — even after they leave the department.
Miguel wasn't consulted on the memo, according to the governor's office.
Jones isn't the only one standing by Beasley.
Crews, Jones' predecessor, said that despite the string of reports about suspicious inmate deaths and questionable investigations, he retained confidence in Beasley and the way his office was run. Crews did, however, near the end of his tenure, offload the investigation of virtually all inmate deaths to outside agencies — primarily FDLE — after the Rainey case and others made headlines. Previously, a much smaller number of cases went to FDLE.
"I am not making any excuses for officers who break the rules,'' Crews said in an interview with the Herald, but he noted that Beasley did a good job with the resources he had.
"It is an almost an impossible, uphill struggle," Crews said, "to change a culture of an institution where inmate abuse is not only accepted, but in some cases, it's expected.''
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.