Under the Florida Department of Corrections’ oversight, prisoners have been gassed by guards and found dead in their cells and in one particularly ghastly incident, a mentally ill prisoner died after being left in a scalding hot shower for hours. The state has made attempts to cover these and other incidents. As revelations of abuse and death of inmates in Florida prisons come to light, the state put a new policy in place in recent months to keep prison inspectors from speaking out about the abuse they see. And on Tuesday, a state judge made it easier for the abuse to continue.
A Tallahassee judge this week upheld the state’s gag order and dismissed a suit filed by five prison inspectors with the state DOC who claimed the confidentiality agreement they were forced to sign violated state law.
“For too long the agency has turned a deaf ear to the problems we face,” one of the inspectors who filed the lawsuit, Aubrey Land, said in a statement. Land has also testified before the state legislature that the culture of corruption in the prison system makes it hard for the inspectors to do their jobs.
DOC Secretary Julie Jones ordered the confidentiality agreement after a state legislative committee began investigating the agency in response to a number of reports of suspicious deaths and mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners. During one committee meeting, prison inspectors said they were told to ignore evidence of crimes committed by the DOC because if they reported the incidents, they would be giving the department a “black eye.”
The inspectors said they were told to withhold information from prosecutors about blatant cases of inmate abuse, medical neglect, gang violence and organized crime they witnessed in the prison system. And when they did report the incidents, they allege they were denied whistleblower status and were retaliated against by their superiors.
One inspector was threatened with a transfer and pay cut after he reported that the department covered up the 2010 death of Randall Jordan-Aparo, a 27-year-old inmate who was found dead in his cell after being gassed by guards. A few months later, inmate Rommell Johnson died of an asthma attack caused by the same noxious chemicals sprayed in his cell by guards.
In a separate case in 2014, mentally ill prisoner Darren Rainey died after he was left for over an hour in scalding hot water in a shower stall at the Dade Correctional Institution as a form of punishment. Civil rights groups called for an investigation into the incident and the use of the shower stall on other prisoners to inflict pain, but after more than two years of investigation by Miami-Dade police, the medical examiner still had not even reported an official cause of death.
A record 346 people died in Florida prisons last year and while many occurred from natural causes, the high number has prompted state and federal law enforcement officers to take a closer look at the prison system and alleged cover-ups of abuse.
“These investigators can no longer be silent. Somebody has to stand up. Somebody has to tell the truth,” Naomi Washington, the sister of an inmate whose death was labeled a drug overdose, told the Miami Herald. Washington suspects her brother was actually poisoned by the prison staff.