Following whistleblower lawsuits alleging abuse and corruption in Florida prisons, the state's corrections chief imposes a gag order.(Photo by Lonny Paul)

Following whistleblower lawsuits alleging abuse and corruption in Florida prisons, the state’s corrections chief imposes a gag order.(Photo by Lonny Paul)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

The new leadership at the troubled Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) is working to ensure no one speaks out about problems at the state agency. However, concerned employees are looking to block this new policy.

According to The Miami Herald/ Tampa Bay Times, the DOC’s new secretary, Julie Jones, has begun imposing a policy aimed at penalizing people working at the Office of Inspector General if they speak out.

The Herald/Times reports,

Two days after Florida legislators asked a series of probing questions of the top inspector at the Department of Corrections, the agency has banned inspectors from discussing any investigations, releasing any public records relating to agency probes, or even voluntarily bringing information to outsiders — including legislators.

The virtual gag order requires all employees of the Office of Inspector General to sign a confidentiality agreement and three other documents pledging they will not use the department database for unauthorized use, will not release information on open or closed cases to anyone, and will not compromise their independence while they are working in the department.

Any violation could result in “immediate termination.”

The Office of Inspector General is charged with investigating criminal wrongdoing or policy violations in the state’s prison system.

Agency spokesman McKinley Lewis said the change was implemented Thursday by new DOC Secretary Julie Jones because she wanted to impose a standard used by most law enforcement agencies. He described the documents as “basic, normal forms that tell people to follow the law” and said it is part of Jones’ effort to “fix many things in the department.”

But the timing of the gag order raised questions and drew immediate criticism from lawmakers. This week, two Senate committees asked for data on agency investigations and grilled DOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley about the complaints of current and former inspectors who have been denied whistle-blower status.

Trouble at the DOC, which ranges from allegations of widespread inmate abuse to corruption, came to light last year because of whistleblowers.

Because of the former DOC employees, federal officials have begun looking into into whether the state is violating the constitutional rights of inmates in Florida.

That’s why two prison inspectors, along with two supervisors in the Office of Inspector General, are filing a lawsuit with the agency, the Herald/Times reports. These department employees claim leadership is “targeting and retaliating against them for alleged possible criminal wrongdoing and cover-up in the gassing death of Randall Jordan-Aparo in Franklin Correctional Institution,” the newspapers report.

According the Herald/Times,

Faced with speaking up or losing their jobs, two inspectors with the Department of Corrections asked a circuit court in Leon County Monday to stop the Department of Corrections from enforcing a new gag order they say is an attempt at intimidating them from discussing cases that are public record or reporting misconduct.

The inspectors, Aubrey Land and John Ulm, were among several agency staff told by DOC Secretary Julie Jones that they had until Feb. 17 to sign three documents pledging not to discuss open or closed investigations — even if the investigations are a public record. Employees who failed to sign could be subject to “immediate termination.”

The confidentiality agreement violates several state and federal statutes and “is tantamount to FDOC-sponsored obstruction of justice and censorship,” Land and Ulm said in the complaint.

The virtual gag order came on the same week that two Senate committees asked detailed questions about the agency’s handling of suspicious inmate deaths and questionable investigations in the wake of reports in the Miami Herald, and a whistleblower lawsuit filed by the inspectors and their supervisors.

After the Miami Herald reported on the new rules, Jones issued a statement that the agreement would not prevent inspectors “from fulfilling their duties as public servants and law enforcement officers.”

She said that the agreement was intended to insured the integrity of their investigations and to protect both “aggrieved individuals and the inspectors.” She noted that since she began in the job in early January she has implemented a policy “to make clear that all complaints will be taken seriously and remain confidential during the investigative phase.”

She said the goal of the agreement “is to ensure that those who come forward are not subject to retaliation of any kind.”

The plaintiffs claim the gag order is not just merely an intimidation tactic, it’s also a violation of state sunshine laws and federal laws.

State lawmakers also aren’t happy with the sudden shift in policy. State Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, who is the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, told DOC officials that he was taken aback and wanted more information about how the gag order came to pass.

The Florida Legislature has vowed to tackle some of the larger systemic issues at DOC this year, which could be made harder if parts of the agency are restricted from giving any information out.