An attempt by Florida's new prisons chief to keep investigators from discussing what's going on inside the state's troubled prison system has sparked a lawsuit.
An attorney representing six Corrections Department employees asked a judge this week to block a new confidentiality policy ordered by Secretary Julie Jones.
Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews maintains in the lawsuit that investigators could lose their jobs if they refuse to sign an agreement by Feb. 19 saying they will follow the policy. The 58-page court filing also asserts that the new policy violates several state and federal laws and was undertaken to prevent state legislators and others from asking about ongoing scandals.
Jones was brought in last year by Gov. Rick Scott to deal with an agency under fire for suspicious inmate deaths and poor treatment of prisoners. She has asked for millions of dollars in the coming year to boost staffing and has suggested she may be forced to revamp contracts with private companies that provide health care to inmates.
Several times this year legislators have questioned both Jones and other top prison officials about inmate deaths and the use of force against inmates. Earlier this month, a Senate committee grilled the agency's inspector general. Three days later, the department asked all of its investigators to abide by the new confidentiality policy.
That policy, which was first reported by The Miami Herald, said investigators cannot discuss or disclose information from either open or closed cases.
Jones conceded to a state House committee on Wednesday that the timing of the new policy was "terrible," but she said it was needed to let investigators do their job without having to answer questions from other prison officials. She said it would also stop gossip and "water cooler talk." She also maintained the new policy would not stop the agency from responding to public record requests or questioning by the Florida Legislature.
In an interview with The Associated Press, she said the policy was not prompted by the grilling of her inspector general.
"There's nothing nefarious, there's no dots to connect," Jones said. "This is no way meant to be punitive. This is to protect our inspectors as well as the people who are talking to these inspectors."
Jones denied that anyone would be fired if they refused to agree to the new policy. But she said the employees would be reassigned to new duties in the prison system.
She also asserted that the new policy was drawn up by agency attorneys and followed state and federal laws.
"I stand by the document and I do not believe it violates the law," Jones said. "I would welcome any scrutiny on this policy. If I got it wrong we will rectify it."
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