Florida's Department of Corrections destroyed nearly two years of emails  during hardware maintenance. (Photo via Zachary Korb/Creative Commons)

Florida’s Department of Corrections destroyed nearly two years of emails during hardware maintenance. (Photo via Zachary Korb/Creative Commons)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

After a year of press inquiries, Florida’s Department of Corrections (DOC) told the Scripps-Tribune Capitol Bureau this week that “e-mails from January 2007 through September 2008 were destroyed.” News of the massive public records disappearance, which an information officer with the agency called a “significant loss of data,” comes at a time when the DOC is under significant scrutiny.

Over the past few months media organizations have been investigating allegations that prisoner abuse and deaths were covered-up. And, as Matt Dixon with the Scripps-Tribune reports, the timeline for some of these events now has no public record at the DOC.

Here are some of those evens via Dixon and the The Naples Daily News,

In 2007, the state was under a lethal injection moratorium after a prisoner took 34 minutes to die during a botched 2006 execution. Crist signed a death warrant in July 2007 that was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

In Oct. 2007, eight prison officials were acquitted in the death of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old black male held at a Panhandle boot camp. The verdict sparked outrage after a trial featuring video of guards beating Anderson. The case, in part, prompted Time Magazine to publish a story titled “What’s Wrong with Florida’s Prisons.”

During Fiscal Year 2007, more than 30,000 incidents were reported to the department’s inspector general’s office, which represented a 53 percent increase over five years. Those reports include complaints against staff, inmate injuries, and escape attempts.

That’s just a snippet of events that the press already knows about.

According to the Scripps-Tribune Tallahassee bureau, though, it became impossible to get information about correspondence to and from the DOC during that timeframe.

Scripps-Tribune reported,

“All data sent and received by DOC staff statewide through e-mail from each institution, community corrections, health services, and all other business units within the department for the entire year of 2007 and from January through September of 2008 were destroyed and are no longer retrievable,” Douglas B. Smith, the department’s chief information officer, wrote in a letter dated Aug. 6 that the Scripps-Tribune Capitol Bureau received only last week.

Smith said the records were destroyed in March 2012 in “an attempt to fix a hardware problem” by the Southwood Shared Resource Center, which is a state-owned data center that houses information for state departments and agencies.

The destruction of such a large number of public records is significant because it eliminates an important trail of electronic evidence the agency is required to maintain to publicly document its actions. Not only are state agencies required to maintain and make public records accessible to citizens under Florida’s Sunshine Law. They also are required to retain documents, including e-mails and other electronic messages, for a period that is determined based on the subject of the communication.

“Retention periods are determined by the content, nature, and purpose of records, and are set based on their legal, fiscal, administrative, and historical values, regardless of the format in which they reside or the method by which they are transmitted,” according to the state’s retention policy for electronic communication.

The correspondence must be retained under the state’s record retention policy to comply with required financial and performance audits; grant compliance; potential legal action; and other administrative functions that rely on archived documents.

This isn’t the first time correspondence that is public record has gone missing under Gov. Rick Scott’s administration.

In 2011, It was reported early in Scott’s term that the email accounts he and most of his transition team used were deleted right after he took office– even though state law required that those emails and documents be kept for public record.