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Politics / Issues

Fla. Prison Employees Fearful Of Losing Jobs Could Soon Testify Before Lawmakers

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones speaking Monday to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, chaired by Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker).
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones speaking Monday to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, chaired by Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker).

As Florida lawmakers continue to delve into making changes to the state’s troubled prison system, some want to hear from the employees affected by the changes. But, several correctional officers say they’re afraid of retaliation from the prison agency due to a new policy some are calling a “gag order.”

A day before the Florida Legislative Session officially began, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee’s agenda included testimony from some Florida Department of Corrections employees on Florida’s troubled prison system. It’s been plagued by inmate deaths, allegations of abuse by prison guards, and cover ups. Through several hearings, issues with understaffing, equipment, and officer shifts have come up as well.

But, the panel’s chairman, Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker), says the DOC employees were afraid to appear.

“We haven’t really discussed, I don’t think that thoroughly, on the ‘gag order’ that was sent out, but I’ve got some folks who would like to talk, but they’re afraid of retaliation,” said Evers, during a Monday hearing.

Evers says he got at least 12 people who were willing to testify and even come to the panel via subpoena. But, he adds a new department policy that could mean they lose their jobs is a deterrent.

“Had one fella tell me ‘you subpoena, you put me under oath, I’m going to tell you, but I’ve got two girls in college and I’m afraid if I do that, I can’t support those two girls in college if I do that,’” added Evers. “Now, they all stepped up and said, 'Absolutely, here's what is going on, here's what's happening, but this is what will happen, because then I will be looked at as if I'm snitching on somebody.”

The so-called “Gag order” was a policy implemented by newly appointed DOC Secretary Julie Jones called a “confidentiality agreement.” In it, she forbid inspectors from discussing information about investigations to anyone outside those who need to know. Anyone found to be in violation would be fired.

It’s even the subject of a lawsuit. All that had come around a time in early February when Evers along with other lawmakers had asked for information on investigations pertaining to whistleblower claims.

So, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing weeks ago, Jones explained her decision was necessary to protect investigators.

“You have an inspector that has no specific rank is investigating presumed wrongdoing inside the institution,” said Jones. “Someone of rank walks up and asks, 'So what are you doing? What's going on? Who are you investigating?' And that individual needs to go look back and rely on a confidentiality agreement to say, 'I can't talk to you about that' and feel real good about it. Even in situations that are unfounded, you don't want gossip. You don't want water-cooler talk. You don't want anyone talking, 'I investigated so-and-so. Guess what they were accused of doing.' It's not professional…”

Still, she admits “quite frankly, when that confidentiality agreement came out, the timing was terrible.”

But, she adds, “I’ve just decided to rip the band aid off and go forward. It was not intended as a gag order. It does not keep those investigators from collaborating on information. It has absolutely no overriding factor on public records request, and lastly, the authority on this body or the Senate or anyone else who has the authority over this agency can continue to do their business and in no way, does that eliminate your ability to talk to anyone or ask questions.”

And, she reiterated much of those same thoughts to Senator Evers, during Monday’s hearing. So, he asked her to make him a promise.

“Would you go on the record and tell folks that they will not receive any retaliation if they come before this committee and talk,” asked Evers.

“Senator, not only can I do that and assure that anyone who wants to talk to this committee that they have free passage, I can also tell you that we will now—at the end of business today [Monday]—had staff meeting with at least 100+ people at 27 of our institutions where they have stood up and said, ‘the radio batteries aren’t functioning, the flashlights don’t work, we need different safety equipment, the uniforms suck, we’re understaffed…’ Everything that you just mentioned people have already stood up and said in open meetings to my survey staff and no one has been fired because they said anything,” Jones replied.

Meanwhile, an aide to Senator Evers says Jones’ message is expected to be relayed to those employees who want to come forward, and they should expect to appear at the Senate Criminal Justice Committee’s meeting next week.

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

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