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After More Testimony, More Changes Could Be In Store For Omnibus Prison Reform Package

Florida Channel

A panel of Florida lawmakers is continuing a discussion into reforming the state’s troubled prison system by hearing testimony about widespread corruption and abuse within the prison walls.

Last week, after they swore under oath, a series of former and current correctional officers testified before the Senate Criminal justice Committee about the unsafe conditions in the prisons and cover-ups during investigations.

In earlier comments, new Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said she’s on board with any employees candidly talking to state lawmakers about problems within the prison system, adding she would not retaliate against anyone who fears they’ll lose their job.

Still, following last week’s testimony, she stated she was “disappointed” the committee didn’t get the full picture.

This week, the panel’s chairman, Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker) still allowed for a second round of any testimony. The only person who came forward on Monday was Judy Thompson, President of the Forgotten Majority. She’s been working with top DOC officials under the Scott administration to address some of the problems. She says every day, she gets several letters from inmates, giving horrendous accounts of abuse.

She read the letter of one inmate who told of what occurred when he was found in a room of another inmate he should not have been in.

“'He [the officer] jacked me up by my T-shirt and started using his chemical agent on me: in my face, my mouth, and my ears,’” read Thompson. “That shouldn’t happen in a thousand years. That’s not the proper use of a chemical agent, but it happens every day. By that time, Officer Stewart joined in and started using her chemical agent on me as well. I told them,’ stop it! Why are you tripping? I can’t breathe and my eyes are bad. They stopped after one minute or so, locked me back in the cell, and then called and ordered the camera and a captain to be present.”

But, Thompson says it wasn’t fully taped the way it was supposed to—which she adds occurs in a lot of these types of incidents.

“When there’s unauthorized use of force within FDOC, they’re supposed to call a camera so that, that action can be on tape,” Thompson testified. “The issue I find with that is that sometimes, the picture is not directly in the face, and I’ve asked FDOC to take a picture of that face. Because when your nose is bleeding, you’ve been pushed down on a concrete slab, your teeth is broken, and your eyes are black, and that camera is not in your face because maybe, they’ve put a spit mask over your face. You can’t see the injuries.”

When some lawmakers questioned the accuracy of her reports, she said she’s confirmed the accuracy of about 80 percent of the letters she’s received—though she admits they do, at first glance, seem crazy.

She recalled one instance where an inmate sent her a letter about another inmate Darren Rainey, who died while in the custody of Dade Correctional Institution a couple years ago. That case started the department on the path to reform. Rainey, who was mentally ill, had died as a result of allegedly being locked in a scalding hot shower as punishment.

“When I got the letters from Mr. Lanier with respect to Mr. Rainey, I read it. It was so horrific, I didn’t really believe it,” Thompson added. “He sent me four letters altogether: one through his mother because sometimes, they won’t allow those letters to come out. And, once I did that, I referred that letter to the Florida Institutional Legal Services and asked for someone to go and talk with him, and that’s what happened.

Committee Chair Evers has an omnibus bill looking into different ways to reform the system. And, following Thompson’s testimony, he says he may be looking to amend the measure to include a requirement that ensures the incidents are fully recorded.

Still, Assistant Corrections Secretary Tim Cannon urged caution because he says that was the policy in the past using tripod cameras, until certain inmates began to take advantage.

“…where no matter the circumstance you had to have that handheld camera to videotape the use of force,” said Cannon, following Thompson's testimony. “The situation we had at that time in many cases was an inmate would be disruptive in the confinement or close management unit to the point where you would get there with the camera and they would cease their actions. And, then as soon as you turned the camera off, they would start back.”

Cannon also adds DOC is already working to make sure a lot of their institutions are equipped with more fixed cameras.

The Senate’s prison reform package is slated for its last committee hearing Wednesday. Meanwhile, the House hasn’t yet moved on its prison reform package.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.