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What's Attributing To The Recent Arrests Of Multiple North Florida Correctional Officers?

MGN Online

In recent months, multiple correctional officers have been arrested for crimes ranging from assaulting inmates to smuggling contraband into correctional facilities. All of the reports of misconduct within the state’s prison system hail from the North Florida region.

Over the course of a five month period, the Florida Department of Corrections has announced the arrests of close to 15 correctional officers—two of whom are facing federal charges.

“My question is why weren’t they doing that prior to our committee meeting last year, when they called everybody up, and found out what was actually going on when we put employees under oath,” said Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker).

Evers is in charge of the Senate’s effort to reform Florida’s prisons in his capacity as chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. And, some arrests occurred in or around his district.

He helped the Governor and Corrections Secretary Julie Jones put some changes in place during this past session, and he’s hoping to do more with a bill that includes creating a third degree felony for those correctional officers who harm inmates by withholding clothes, food, and medical care.

If that change had been in place, one Lancaster correctional officer arrested a couple weeks ago might be facing those charges. In his case, he did not report an inmate assault by other prisoners and delayed medical care for the injured inmate.

Evers commends Jones and the Office of Inspector General for their work in bringing these people to justice. But, his main attributer to these North Florida regional arrests are the investigators.

“Well, I feel number one, part of the reason we’re having more arrests in the Northern region is the investigators are a lot stronger and doing a better job right now,” added Evers. “And, I think it was more prevalent as far as what was going on. But, I also feel like if they would take the investigators that are here in North Florida, and transfer them to South Florida, you would have just as many, if not more.”

But, Corrections Secretary Jones has a different take.

“I haven’t looked at the demographics. I would have to go back and see where those arrests were made. But, I think, instead of looking geographically, if you look at the types of facilities that these are coming from, it’s based on the inmate population, whether it’s a higher risk population, mental health,” said Jones.

And, after looking at some of the numbers, she’d be right. With the exception of a couple, most of the arrests did occur in correctional facilities with about 1,200 or more inmates—which she says accounts for a lot of high-stress situations.

“We have a lot of issues associated with correctional officers right now with PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], stress, and there’s been a number of studies that indicate that PTSD is as high in military individuals coming back from overseas,” said Jones. “So, I would look more at the inmate population and the job associated with that individual and not the geographics.”

A lot of the arrests were for smuggling contraband into correctional facilities—two from Wakulla Correctional. The others were correctional facilities in Madison, Okaloosa, and Liberty counties.

Three arrests occurred in a matter of 13 days.

The department’s Inspector General’s office is not the only one tasked with investigating these cases. There are also cases brought before an independent body tasked with certifying officers and watching officer conduct. It’s called the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission within Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

A recent report by OPPAGA states that over a ten year period, 88 percent of contraband cases brought before the commission resulted in correctional officers’ loss of certification—which troubles Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island).

During a recent hearing of Evers’ committee, Bradley questioned OPPAGA’s Senior Legislative Analyst Jim Clark about those stats.

“That does say that, right,” asked Bradley. “I’m not missing it. There are 12 percent of people who it was determined by the commission that they smuggled contraband in, but they did not lose their job?”

“That’s correct,” Clark responded.

“Okay, that just blows my mind,” said Bradley. “Thank you.”

A recent audit of the prison agency shows contraband is particularly problematic. And, Jones says she’s continually taking steps to reduce that within the correctional facilities. She says ideally, she’d like to combat that using technology, like they do in the federal prisons.

But, she says for now, the focus is on visitors, cameras, and work squads.

“A lot of contraband thrown over the fence at night, and so we have to look for contraband, not only inside our prison, but our work squads that go out,” said Jones. “We have contraband hidden, associated with parks, and areas where they know, in the bushes where they know that they’re going to be doing yard maintenance and whatnot. So, it takes gathering intelligence. So, we listen to phone calls. We look at mail, and there’s always indicators of usually family members, who are trying to get contraband into an inmate. So, it’s a wholesale problem that is not fixed by one method.”

Contraband isn’t the only problem….at least five arrests also stemmed from correctional officers using excessive use of force and lying about it. Two more arrests at Franklin Correctional institution were on the federal level—And, Evers says that needs to be taken more seriously.

“But, by the same token, I want the correctional officers to understand that when you have to use force, you use force because if you don’t you’re jeopardizing not only your safety, but the safety of your fellow employees,” said Evers. “And, if you use force, use whatever force that you need to get the situation under control, and I would be the first to stand with that officer and say, ‘that is not unnecessary use of force.’”

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are soon expected to discuss the proposal adding the third degree felony provision if officers harm an inmate.

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.