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Senate Told About Prison Corruption

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Florida Department of Corrections
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Former and current employees in Florida's corrections system testified Tuesday about widespread corruption and unsafe conditions in the state's prisons, which house roughly 100,000 inmates.

A Senate committee that has been investigating Florida's Department of Corrections took the unusual step of swearing in witnesses under oath as they asked questions about the agency, and particularly the actions of the inspectors hired to investigate and report any wrongdoing.

Several testified and said they were dissuaded from pushing investigations into areas that would give the agency a "black eye" and that they feared retribution for speaking out.

One of the most damning parts of testimony came from Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison, who had worked as an inspector until he was elected last year.

Harrison testified about an investigation of a warden who was eventually fired by the department. He said that after a prosecutor concluded there was no criminal charges to pursue, investigators turned up additional evidence that could have been used against him. But Harrison said he was ordered to ignore the new information.

Harrison did not get into specifics about the warden's conduct, saying only it involved the cover-up of alleged medical neglect committed by a prison nurse. The warden was having a relationship with her.

When asked by senators, Harrison said he did not know who in the agency ordered him to keep his findings quiet.

"I don't know where the order came from," he testified.

Ted Jeter, the warden at Jackson Correctional Institution in north Florida, was fired in 2012 but he sued over his dismissal. A jury sided with Jeter, who contended he was fired for being a whistleblower, and awarded him damages. The agency is challenging the decision.

A phone call to Jeter's attorney was not returned. Harrison did not answer follow-up questions from reporters.

But Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said that testimony heard by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee "represents one view of several incidents that happened years ago." She noted that the case was initially presented to prosecutors who declined to charge Jeter.

"When a case is declined by the State Attorney's Office for criminal prosecution, and there is evidence to prosecute civilly, investigators are encouraged to take decisive action to ensure that the individuals in question are held accountable," she said in a statement.

Jones, however, added that she was "personally disappointed that the environment in which current and former Department staff were asked to testify did not allow for the presentation of all known facts regarding the incidents in question."

"I have the utmost confidence in the abilities of the Office of Inspector General and Department staff to take decisive action in the interest of safety and security for both themselves and the inmates in our custody."

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.