News from Tallahassee for 10/22/14

Corrections Fires 32 Workers for Misconduct posted on 9/22/14

by DARA KAM | NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

In what has become a frequent exercise, Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews on Friday fired 32 workers accused of breaking the law, including three prison guards involved in the gassing death of an inmate at a Panhandle prison four years ago.

All of the workers fired were on administrative leave pending a review launched earlier this summer. The housecleaning is part of the secretary's attempt to salvage the reputation of the beleaguered agency in the wake of reports of widespread abuse and corruption, whistle-blower complaints and federal investigations surrounding prisoner deaths.

Among the axed workers are Rollin Austin, Randall Johnson and Kevin Hampton, three former prison guards at Franklin Correctional Institution where inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo died after allegedly being repeatedly gassed by guards and then left to die.

Dismissal letters from Crews to the workers say they are being let go because they "participated in a force incident that resulted in the death of an inmate." None of the fired workers has been arrested or charged with any crimes.

Four Department of Corrections investigators say they've been retaliated against for exposing a cover-up about Jordan-Aparo's September 2010 death. The investigators claim that Gov. Rick Scott's chief inspector general Melinda Miguel -- who refused to grant them whistle-blower protection -- was aware of the cover-up for at least three years. The DOC investigators, who found that Jordan-Aparo was too ill to warrant being treated as a threat, are themselves now the subjects of internal reviews.

According to a whistle-blower lawsuit, Austin gave the order to gas Jordan-Aparo, who died five hours later after being gassed twice more and being left to die. The 27-year-old, coated in yellow residue from the noxious chemicals, was found dead in solitary confinement with a Bible beside his head. Jordan-Aparo was serving an 18-month sentence for fraud and drug charges.

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Mental Health Advocates Suing DOC: 'Prison System Must Go Beyond Current Reforms' posted on 9/11/14

by Sascha Cordner | WFSU

The unnatural death of a mentally ill inmate two years ago has spurred the Florida Department of Corrections to enact a series of reforms. But, some mental health advocates say it’s not enough. Now, the group Disability Rights Florida is suing the prison agency on behalf of other mentally ill inmates housed within the same correctional facility the inmate died in.

In 2012, mentally ill inmate, Darren Rainey died, after he was allegedly locked in a scalding, hot shower as punishment at Dade Correctional Institution. And, lawyer representing Disability Rights Florida Peter Sleasman says after conducting their own probe, the group found similar abuses at the facility’s inpatient mental health unit.

“And, we got reports that the most seriously ill inmates were being targeted by the Correctional officers for abuse down there: withholding of food, beatings, other kinds of verbal and physical harassment of the inmates down there—basically for behaviors which were a direct result of their mental illness,” said Sleasman with Florida Institutional Legal Services, which also filed the federal suit.

Corrections Secretary Mike Crews has been traveling the state, visiting different correctional facilities. And, he recently announced a series of reforms, like extra training for officers, new disciplinary and investigative policies, and the launch an inmate deaths website—the agency's latest reform.

“Our department should be held to the highest standard. And, I have zero tolerance for anything less,” said Crews, at a press conference last month.

According to the website, there have been 225 inmate deaths this year—many of them deemed natural, while others are still under investigation. The website allows users to search by facility and view investigations into unnatural deaths.

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Florida prison system, under fire, releases data on inmate deaths posted on 9/10/14

by julie k. brown | miami herald

Judith Arrascue says she has tried for months to find out what happened to her husband, Luis, a state prison inmate who died at the Lake Butler Reception and Medical Center in April.

On Tuesday, Florida’s Department of Corrections unveiled a new online database of inmate deaths that reveals Arrascue died after he “fell down on the sidewalk’’ outside one of the prison dorms.

His death, the investigative summary says, was accidental. Informed of that finding Tuesday, Arrascue remained suspicious.

Five months after the episode, she said she has no autopsy, no incident report, and no other details from the Department of Corrections, except that her husband’s head “smashed like a watermelon’’ on the concrete pavement.

The online document describing Arrascue’s death, one of only eight detailed case summaries posted thus far, is heavily redacted.

“How can that be an accident?’’ his wife asked, weeping. “He was pushing a man in a wheelchair.’’

Florida’s Department of Corrections, facing intensifying scrutiny over a growing number of suspicious inmate deaths and reports of alleged abuse involving prison guards, introduced the online database cataloging all inmate deaths over the past 14 years.

The database lists inmates by name, prison, race and manner of death, and supplies other details that the Miami Herald had been trying to obtain from the department since May, when the newspaper began a series of articles about prison deaths.

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Turpentine and prisons: The dark legacy of a prominent Baker County family posted on 9/10/14

by Clifford Davis | Florida Times-Union

The historic Baker County jail certainly was not seen as a refuge by most prisoners who spent time there.

The simple brick structure – with its trap door in the kitchen ceiling meant for hangings – offered little relief from scalding Florida summers. For the scarred, battered prisoners fortunate enough to return there from Sen. T.J. Knabb’s turpentine camp in Glen St. Mary in the 1920s, it was a refuge.

T.J. Knabb, and later his brother William, used cunning, intelligence and an iron fist to build the largest turpentine empire in the world. In what was Florida’s second-largest industry until the middle of the 20th century, that was no laughing matter.

Knabb Turpentine eventually owned over 200,000 acres of pine forest — more than half of Baker County.

The family’s power and influence shaped the county to such an extent that it is still obvious today.

Children play Little League baseball at Knabb Sports Complex in Macclenny on land donated by the family. A turpentine display at Heritage Park “was constructed by Knabb offspring to honor their family’s contribution to Baker County’s growth and development,” according to the park’s website.

However, underneath the façade of wealth and power is a dark legacy built on the blood, sweat and sometimes the lives of those unlucky enough to become entangled in its web.

Thomas Jefferson Knabb was born in Baker County in 1880. He built his fortune on turpentine and timber, using peonage and convict labor. He also served as a state senator for 10 years and, at the time of his death in 1937, owned 10,000 head of cattle and 50,000 acres of land.

“The old saying was that if T.J. didn’t pay his taxes, Baker County would go bankrupt,” one family member told the Times-Union.

Knabb crafted his empire, in part, on the convict-lease system in place in Florida at the time. By 1919, the state outlawed the leasing of state prisoners to private companies, but counties could still lease theirs. For counties like Baker, it provided substantial and much-needed revenue.

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FDLE plans full-fledged inquiry into Waldo police posted on 9/3/14

by Arek Sarkissian | Gainesville Sun

The City of Waldo now faces two state investigations stemming from its police department, and a Clay County Sheriff’s Office report released on Tuesday revealed more allegations against Waldo’s police chief.

On Tuesday, Florida Department of Law Enforcement detectives determined there was enough evidence of a violation of the state’s ticket quota law to warrant a full-fledged investigation.

Last week, five Waldo police officers told the City Council that Chief Mike Szabo and City Manager Kim Worley ordered them to write 12 speeding tickets per 12-hour shift, which breaches a state law that carries no consequences.

The allegations by the officers spurred an FDLE preliminary inquiry and then the investigation announced on Tuesday.

The case is the second investigation opened by FDLE investigators against Waldo police. The first began on Aug. 12 that involved Szabo and relates to a possible violation of police procedure. Worley was still mum on details on that case as of Tuesday afternoon.

“Hopefully, I can tell you everything by Friday,” Worley said. “Then I can answer all of your questions.”

Worley also said the 12-traffic ticket requirement was only a guideline implemented to keep officers busy and was not meant to spur revenue for the community known for decades as a speed trap.

“It was only to make sure that they’re working,” Worley said. “There’s not a supervisor and a lot of times you’re working by yourself.”

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