Hell Housing: Florida’s Department of Crimes Secretary Julie Jones

March 23, 2015

A Synopsis of My 30 Minute Phone Call with FL DOC Secretary Julie Jones on March 16, 2015

George’s Note: I finished the conversation with Secretary Jones feeling unsatisfied. I suppose it would be shocking if she had taken a different line with me than the company line we hear in her interviews. It seemed like she was in damage control mode while simultaneously glossing over the brutality that occurs regularly in Florida prisons.

A number of concerns guide my work as a psychotherapist, human rights advocate and prison reformer: The safety of inmates throughout the DOC, especially with regard to the mentally ill; investigations into abuse, beatings, and suspicious deaths; and criminal charges against officers who commit these crimes and those who conspire to cover them up.

I got the sense Jones’s priorities are different than mine. From interviews and appearances before the Criminal Justice Committee (CJC), tops on her list is to get money to hire more officers and repair the crumbling infrastructure of prisons throughout Florida. Both absolutely necessary, but in my opinion, will not impress anybody that substantive change is occurring. Inmates will continue to be abused, brutalized, and killed by corrections officers.

It is my hope that Secretary Jones initiates wide ranging investigations deep into the hierarchies of the Department of Corrections and the Office of the Inspector General. I’m not alone. After hearing sworn testimony on March 10th from current and former investigators in a CJC hearing, Senator Greg Evers said, on News Talk 1370 WCOA, that he is “…waiting to see right now if the Governor or the Chief Inspector General in the Governor’s office will step in and do something. If not, then I feel compelled that it’s my responsibility to ask for a full investigation.”

On a personal note, I’ve became a staunch supporter of Senator Evers. Since meeting him before my presentation before the CJC on January 5th, he has unflinchingly sought out the truth of what really happens in the DOC. Evers elaborated further on WCOA, “If FDLE does not do it [an investigation], then I would be forced to go to the FBI or the Department of Treasury.”

Phone Conversation with FL DOC Secretary Julie Jones

After exchanging pleasantries, we got down to business. Secretary Jones had me on speaker phone and mentioned that Tim Cannon, Deputy Secretary, was in the room. I started by complimented her for renegotiating contracts with medical service providers Corizon Health and Wexford. These two companies have between them nearly 1700 malpractice lawsuits and have been the subject of numerous articles detailing medical neglect by the Palm Beach Post and others.

I gave her some quick background from the time I worked at Dade CI in the psychiatric unit known as TCU. I explained that my purpose in calling her was to give her an inside perspective from somebody other than a correctional officer or administrator.

I brought up the case of Darren Rainey. As a psychotherapist I expressed concern regarding the torture and killing of a mentally ill man. I found it particularly disturbing no charges had been brought nearly three years later against the guards who put him in a scalding hot shower to die. Secretary Jones found the manner in which he died disturbing as well.

I went on the describe the beating of inmate Swilling and the fact that counselors who worked there had seen other beatings but were too afraid of retaliation to come forward. I told her of how “security” retaliated against a female counselor who resigned out of fear for her life.

We moved on to discuss three inmates whose relatives have serious concerns regarding their physical safety and psychological well-being. One of the cases had come to her attention – the other two had not. These cases pointed to three deep rooted problems within the DOC: mistreatment of the mentally ill, retaliation that follows inmates from one to prison to an other, and the mismatching of inmates in cells resulting in rape or worse. As most are afraid of retaliation, I will not disclose details here.

With regard to the mentally ill, I pointed out that they will act out in accordance with their diagnosis and will be put into confinement which is contraindicated. Jones countered by saying they are already in a TCU and receiving appropriate care. I responded that only applied to those who’ve been diagnosed. Jones responded that she had more details about the treatment of the mentally ill that I wasn’t privy to.

I suggested the DOC needs to do a better job at identifying and diagnosing the mentally ill when they first enter the system. Jones thought that should start before they get to the DOC and I agreed with her. I encouraged her to liaison with county jails to begin the tracking and treatment process. Jones admitted that the process has been inconsistent and told me of a criminal justice/mental health bill proposed by Representative McBurney that addresses the issue.

The bill, according to Jones, provides for officer training and mental health courts that would lead to the mentally ill getting treatment as opposed to being sent to prison. I told Jones it sounded similar to the efforts of Judge Steve Leifman whose work she was familiar with.

In the case where I outlined how retaliation follows an inmate from prison to prison, Secretary Jones cited cases where relatives ask for a transfer to a federal prison only to withdraw their request when they find out it’s to a facility out of state. She did say she would look into the details of the inmate asking to transfer out of state to evade DOC retaliation.

In the third and final case, I described an inmate who was put into a cell with a sexual predator only to be knocked unconscious and raped. The point I made to Secretary Jones was that I had heard of many instances of how guards will retaliate by mismatching inmates on purpose. I insisted that guards who want to keep their hands clean will use inmates to do their dirty work for them. I cited the case of Lavar Valentin at Dade CI who was placed in a cell with a violent offender who killed him. Despite DOC rules expressly forbidding this practice and Lavar’s pleas to be moved, guards ignored his pleas and found he was strangled by his cellmate. Jones was unaware of the case and I promised to send her details from a Miami Herald article – Dade Correctional Back in Spotlight After Strangling.

I prodded Jones regarding her confidence in Jeffery Beasley, Inspector General for the DOC, citing the botched investigations of Darren Rainey (scalded to death by guards), Randall Jordan-Aparo (gassed to death), and Ricky Martin (placed by guards in a cell with a known killer). She insisted it was no fault of Jeffery Beasley and that “the IG’s office hasn’t been the lead on any of those investigations.” She shifted blame to local authorities and the FDLE. “We were never the lead on Aparo although we did assist in that investigation.” Jones went on to say, “we’ve always brought in third party individuals and when the results don’t come out it’s always the IG’s problem.”

I stated, “to stem this culture of violence, abuse, and cover-up, it seems reasonable that correctional officers and the people that cover up for them need to know that there are consequences.” Jones responded, “but there are consequences.” She talked about “federal indictments that came out last month” and a large number of people that had been fired where they could not get an indictment. Jones insisted, “We are cleaning up our shop.”

With regard to where I once worked, the TCU at Dade CI, Secretary Jones described trainings and staff replacements – including the mental health staff.  She cited settling the Disability Rights Florida lawsuit as a motivating factor. She maintained that it is a different facility than when I was there between 2008 to 2011.

I brought up the recent Miami Herald story of  Shurick Lewis, the inmate beaten by officers at Columbia CI. I questioned why a call wasn’t made to his mother. Jones cited security concerns for both the inmate and the hospital, family concerns, and other factors in explaining an internal decision making process as to whether or not to contact the family. In one case, Jones said, a mother was granted access to her son but was removed from the hospital when she “created a scene.”

Jones wanted me to know that it was written policy to show compassion and to keep family members as involved as they can. In addition, she raised HIPAA privacy issues regarding confidentiality of medical treatment. I suggested that when an inmate was able to, a DOC representative could present a medical release to the inmate to sign if they wanted their family to be notified. Signing a release was something I did regularly at Dade CI.

Secretary Jones said the DOC could do that now but it was up to the warden to have the final say in communicating to the family. She mentioned the policy had been adjusted in the last few years to give the warden more authority to determine factors in allowing family access and more information regarding their loved ones.

Changing the subject, I gave Jones an account of the dog and pony shows I witnessed for visiting VIPs to the TCU at Dade CI. I proposed she go to prisons unannounced. She responded that it was natural to “spiff the place up.” But Jones said she wants to see the real prison and told people to “stop putting lipstick on the pig…we need everybody to see the facility as it is – how else can we ask for money for improvement?” Jones did say she had plans to visit prisons unannounced.

I brought up the grievance process and how I heard from multiple sources that guards named by inmates resort to retaliation to silence inmates. Secretary Jones countered by saying the DOC gets 60,000 grievances a year. She didn’t agree with my assertion that a certain number are destroyed to hide guards’ unlawful behavior. She said she personally receives hundreds of letters directly from inmates and family members.

Jones went on to describe inmate panels that present grievances to the warden along with other issues. She thought they met quarterly or twice a year to deal with a host of issues and to resolve inmate problems. She said, “I think what’s happened since you left employment with us…I think things have changed for the better.”

I went on to suggest that the DOC do a better job at publicizing arrests and convictions of officers and other positive developments to counter the public perception that the DOC is riddled with brutality and cover-ups. Jones said, “I think you’d be surprised, we have tried to bring forward all the positive things we’re doing for inmates.” She complained that news outlets focus on sensationalized stories and disregard the gains that have been made.

I made an offer to Secretary Jones to blog positive developments if she would send me links or documentation to that effect. She said I was the first to make that offer. I think, and this could be the solution focused therapist in me, that it’s important to give credit where credit is due. I told Jones that Senator Evers asked me before my presentation to the Criminal Justice Committee to lay off the negativity a bit to focus on solutions. In that spirit, I told her I would be happy to add the good things to the mix.

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