In the past few months, there’ve been a slew of arrests of Florida correctional officers—three just this week. Many have dealt with gassing inmates, and state officials say finding these so-called “bad apples” is proof of recently implemented prison reform policies. But, some may disagree.
Judy Thompson, President of a group called Forgotten Majority, has worked with the Florida Department of Corrections to help address some of the problems within the prison system, plagued by inmate deaths, allegations of abuse by prison guards, and cover ups.
Thompson says she gets many letters from inmates claiming they were abused within DOC, and that includes inappropriate use of chemical agents. They’re used to discipline inmates. And, Thompson adds when they’re used, those incidents are supposed to be recorded.
“I mean that just doesn’t always happen,” said Thompson, during this past legislative session. “I’m going to tell you something that happened at Northwest Florida Reception Center, Christmas Eve. We had officers that went through those corridors, and gave a little spray of chemical agent to the inmates in those cells, and said, ‘Merry Christmas.’ And, I got the letters for that….wished them a ‘Merry Christmas.’”
It’s an area that came up during this past legislative session with regard to prison reform, and an issue surrounding use of force DOC Secretary Julie Jones says she gets the most questions about.
Monitoring the use of chemical agents was put into a comprehensive prison reform package that ultimately died during the budget impasse between the House and Senate.
But, following the end of the legislative session, Governor Rick Scott issued two Executive orders.
“And, both of those Executive Orders had components within them aimed at improving accountability and transparency within the department, and also helping to continue to the reforms that the Governor and Secretary Julie Jones have built,” said DOC spokesman McKinley Lewis.
One Executive Order did include tracking excessive use of force cases and monitoring the use of chemical agents on inmates. And, Lewis says the prison agency has been taking aggressive actions.
“We obviously take any use of force incident seriously. We want to ensure that all uses of force are the least amount of force needed to ensure the safety of our staff and inmates, and also that the force was used appropriately,” he added.
Around the time Scott’s Executive Orders took effect, eight correctional officers across the state have been arrested—two of them facing federal charges for physically assaulting an inmate without justification.
Last month, a Lake City Correctional officer was arrested for lying about gassing an inmate in the face.
Most recently, three other arrests occurred—which included two Suwannee Correctional officers charged with battering two inmates by spraying them with chemical agents and also falsely reporting it.
“So, we have a use of force unit within our Office of Inspector General who reviews all uses of force that occurs within the agency statewide, and we also challenged our institutional leadership to review uses of force and to keep an eye out for things that maybe look a little suspect, so that they can take the appropriate action. You know, if it raises an eyebrow, it’s probably better to refer it to the Office of Inspector General for a review, and then have it come out that it was appropriate than to ignore it have it turn out that it wasn’t,” continued Lewis.
Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker), who chaired the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, was in charge of this year’s effort to reform Florida’s prisons in the Senate. He calls the arrests proof things are turning around.
“Well, I think that what you’re seeing is advanced noticed of the bill that we tried to put through last year that the Governor ultimately did some work through Executive Order, and the Secretary implemented some of the rules,” said Evers.
But, Forgotten Majority’s Judy Thompson disagrees.
“Personally, I think nothing’s changed, but it’s the seat that I sit in,” she said. “I’m the one who receives all of the reports of maltreatment, abuse, and medical neglect. So, even without the legislative session, there would be found out and would be fired. That happened before the legislative session. But, we’re talking about going below the tip of the iceberg. That’s not happening.”
She says instead, there should be what she called an “atypical” approach to put some penalties in place.
“One of the parts of the Senate Bill was to weigh those cans of chemical agents, going and coming on a daily basis. If that was adopted, then this gentleman that I just sent information about to Central Office, they would know that chemical agent was used because his can weighted 0.5 ounces when he came to work, but when he came to work it was 0.3,” added Thompson.
During this past legislative session, DOC Secretary Jones did say they do have those “checks and balances” in place. But, Thompson says they definitely did not have it in place as far as last year’s incident with the spraying of the inmates—mentioned earlier—during Christmas Eve.
Meanwhile, Thompson—who’s worked with DOC Secretaries in the past—is hoping to open a dialogue with Jones, even sending her a report Friday outlining more abuses Thompson says she’s learned about within the prison system.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.