Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones plans to bar the use of chemical agents on prisoners with histories of respiratory ailments and is changing procedures to reduce the use of force on severely mentally ill inmates.
The changes to the policy regarding inmates with respiratory ailments, such as asthma, come after reports of at least two prisoners dying as a result of complications from preexisting breathing-related medical conditions. The inmates had been gassed by guards.
In one case first reported by The News Service of Florida last month, Rommell Johnson, an inmate at the Northwest Florida Reception Center, died in 2010 after being gassed with noxious chemicals less than five hours after being treated for an asthma attack. The state later paid his family $175,000 to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit against the prison and a nurse who worked at the prison the night Johnson died.
Three months later, Randall Jordan-Aparo, who suffered from a chronic blood condition that caused respiratory problems, died after being repeatedly gassed by guards at Franklin Correctional Institution. Reports last summer of the inmate's death, stumbled upon by investigators probing corruption at the prison, unleashed a floodgate of news stories and inquiries into questionable inmate deaths.
Jones, who took over the agency earlier this year, said she decided to change the policy after being questioned about it by The News Service of Florida.
"It's not anything that's happened on my watch, or even recently. But looking at history can help generate policy. And if we can keep an incident like any of those we've talked about in the past from happening again, that's a good thing," Jones said during an interview Tuesday. "I'm going to be very clear in our policy that if the health care folks say that you can't use chemical agents, you're not going to use chemical agents. Period."
Current policy requires medical staff to certify that chemical agents, which cause respiratory distress and can be lethal for asthmatics, may be used on inmates who have certain medical conditions. Although Johnson was treated for a severe asthma attack around 2 p.m. on June 3, 2010, a nurse working a later shift gave guards permission to use the highly concentrated pepper spray, according to incident reports.
Under the new policy Jones is in the process of implementing, chemical agents could no longer be used for inmates who have histories of breathing problems.
"Certainly that is good news for people whose respiratory tract has been compromised. It's long overdue, but it's certainly a welcome change in policy," said Florida Justice Institute Executive Director Randall Berg, who represented Johnson's mother in the lawsuit against the state.
Jones also intends to change the way mentally ill prisoners are handled when they create disturbances. As a result of federal court rulings, state policy already bars the use of chemical agents on severely mentally-ill inmates, including those diagnosed with psychotic, bipolar or major depressive disorders. But use of force involving "hands-on" physical force is allowed.
Jones made addressing issues regarding mentally ill inmates, who make up about 17 percent of Florida's 100,000 prisoners, one of her top priorities after taking over the agency in January.
Jones, who called the policy change "huge," plans to require mental-health workers to conduct crisis interventions to determine the extent to which an inmate's mental health diagnosis is related to his or her disruptive or maladaptive behavior, according to an internal document obtained by The News Service of Florida.
If the crisis intervention does not calm the inmate and the mental-health staff decides the prisoner's underlying illness is the root of the problem, "the inmate will be placed in a level of care commensurate with his assessed mental health needs," the draft policy directive written by Department of Corrections Director of Mental Health Services Dean Aufderheide reads. If the behavior is not related to the inmate's mental illness, use of force can be used but with the oversight of the mental-health personnel, Jones said.
"So where we have these difficult inmates, rather than automatically using use of force if they're making a disturbance, I want to have them evaluated with mental-health care staff first. If it's a mental-health crisis, it should be a medical response, not a security response. Right now, security is responding to everything," she said.
Guards now must undergo eight hours of "critical incident training," one of a series of reforms implemented by Jones' predecessor, Mike Crews, as part of an effort to "change the culture" of the beleaguered corrections system. Jones also said Tuesday she intends to increase staffing levels at the state's 10 mental-health units as part of her reworking of contracts with private health-care vendors.
Berg called the mental-health changes "a significant shift in policy" that should eliminate excessive use of force by corrections officers on mentally ill inmates acting out on their diseases.
But, he cautioned, policy changes alone won't make prisoners any safer.
"There's a huge gap between writing policies and following policies. That's where the proof is in the pudding," he said.
Jones's new policy directives come as lawmakers grapple with their own proposed fixes for the prison system.
On Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved a dramatically altered plan aimed at curbing corruption and purging prisons of rogue guards.
House Criminal Justice Chairman Carlos Trujillo's revamped plan (HB 7131) would require specialized training for guards to handle mentally ill inmates "in non-forceful ways," create a pilot project that would require guards working in mental-health units at Union Correctional Institution to wear body cameras and split the state into five corrections regions --- an increase of two --- headed by directors who can serve a maximum of four years.
The Senate approved a separate plan that would create an independent oversight commission to police prisons, now handled by the agency's inspector general who works for Gov. Rick Scott's inspector general. Both plans contain similar elements dealing with oversight of chemical agents and making it easier for inmates to file grievances.
Trujillo, who met with Jones for an hour Monday, called his bill a work in progress but was adamant about shaking up the corrections agency.
"You have organizational issues, structural issues, and personality issues," Trujillo, R-Miami, said, adding that most of the state's 22,000 corrections employees are hard-working and honest."But that 2, 3, 4 percent, whatever that number is, they are so bad that they're casting complete doubt on the integrity of the system."