After Hernando County took back operation of its privately run jail three years ago, it rolled out the welcome mat for guards who had worked there: They would have a shot at jail jobs with the county.
Then came the rude awakening.
One Corrections Corporation of America guard stood accused of stealing money from an elderly woman. One had been arrested, in separate instances, on charges of battering both an adult and a child.
One admitted during the job interview to injecting herself with steroids. One admitted to using marijuana, cocaine and Ketamine, an tranquilizer sometimes used for animals. Another used cocaine, marijuana, LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Others admitted to using narcotics, although they had lied about doing so on their applications.
Bad guards happen, and they happen in public prisons, too. Even so, a Palm Beach Post investigation uncovered a disturbing series of criminal charges brought against private prison guards in Florida before, during or after their stint as corrections officers.
Jim McDonough, Florida’s hard-boiled former Department of Corrections chief, recalls that he had a special request of private prison operators: Stop hiring the people he had fired.
“I was firing them for a reason,” he said.
McDonough praised the private prison wardens but said some of the rank and file corrections officers they hired were another story. “They were not attracting the right people,” he said.
People with multiple arrests can work as corrections officers if misdemeanor charges don’t involve perjury, or if, in the case of felonies, they are found not guilty or if adjudication is withheld.
As a result, guards with an arrest history can still be certified by the state to work in prisons.
“Some of them got recruited without a criminal record,” said McDonough. But, he said, “They certainly came with a sordid background that led me to believe they were improperly employed.”
More than 1 prison
For example, arrest histories involving decertified guards at one private Florida prison show officers there chalked up triple the number of arrests compared with guards at a comparable state-run lockup.
Further, while charges brought against public prison guards could be serious — one officer was charged with child abuse — most involved drugs or battery. By contrast, the charges levied against private prison guards tended to be more serious: armed robbery, burglary, grand theft, aggravated battery and welfare fraud.
Nor is the problem confined to just one of Florida’s seven privately run prisons.
In a single year, a guard at Gadsden Correctional was charged with hitting a pregnant woman in a bar fight. Another Gadsden officer was arrested on charges of grand theft and tampering with evidence.
A Moore Haven officer was arrested on charges of stalking his ex-girlfriend for weeks and breaking into her house.
A Lake City Correctional officer was charged with battery after holding down a teenager while the teen’s father punched the girl in the head.
Two South Bay guards were charged with battery; one was arrested on charges of grand theft auto. Several guards at private prisons were charged with driving under the influence.
And it’s not just the guards.
The lead chaplain at Blackwater River Correctional twice got on the wrong side of the law inside of 60 days: arrested on charges of failing to pay $11,555 in child support in September 2011 and the next month on battery involving domestic violence. The misdemeanor battery case was dropped.
In Hernando County, the license of the former jail psychiatrist was suspended after reports that he asked for lap dances and groped or kissed female inmates in a closet serving as his office at the CCA-run jail. A state investigation cited two cases where inmates believed he was willing to exchange drugs for sexual favors.
Alerted by an inmate, CCA launched an investigation, as did the state Department of Health. The psychiatrist is barred from treating women, according to a state order. He no longer practices in Florida.
CCA spokesman Steve Owen defended that company’s “17,000 well-trained professionals — including chaplains, nurses, teachers and correctional officers, who share a common commitment to ensuring the safety and security of our facilities and the surrounding communities.”
GEO Group, which operates two Florida prisons, said the company has “has always adhered to the highest standards in our industry.” And a spokesman for Management & Training Corp. emphasized that its staff is rigorously trained. “Many of our wardens, deputy wardens, sergeants, lieutenants and captains have been through these extensive training programs,” he said.
The Post analyzed state databases to create a side-by-side comparison of the GEO Group-operated South Bay prison with state-run Okeechobee Correctional. The two lockups are considered by the state to be comparable.
Looking only at guards who lost their state certification as corrections officers between 2003 and 2012, The Post found five decertified guards at Okeechobee accused of crimes. By contrast, 15 decertified guards at South Bay faced criminal charges.
GEO declined to comment on the findings. Former guards did not respond to written requests for comment.
Some South Bay guards had a troubled history by the time they first put on the uniform.
In 1994, police said they spotted Juwan Sanders running from a home that had just been burgled. When officers caught up with him, they found both Sanders and the stolen items. He was charged with burglary. Charges were dropped.
In 1998, he was charged with resisting arrest without violence and obstruction of justice; charges were dropped.
In 2001, when he started working as a corrections officer at South Bay, Sanders was again charged with obstructing justice without violence, and again, charges were dropped.
In 2003, Sanders was spotted in the alley of a Hess gas station shortly after midnight. A woman in the alley told police Sanders was a known drug dealer — one of the largest in the area — and that she had met him to discuss paying off a debt for cocaine.
A chunk of rock cocaine was found near where Sanders had thrown an object when the police came on the scene, leading to charges of possession with intent to sell the drug. He pleaded no contest. Sanders left South Bay the same year, according to state records.
In 2004, he was arrested again. After police saw his car swerving across a lane of traffic, they searched it and found a bag of marijuana. He pleaded no contest to fleeing a police officer. The pot charge was dropped. The following year, he was arrested on another pot charge and found guilty.
Guard billing welfare
In 2001, the year after she was hired at South Bay, Alvetta Pass was charged with welfare fraud for lying about her income to secure food stamps and Medicaid benefits totaling $1,235. She told social workers she had a job at Domino’s Pizza; she didn’t mention her other job at South Bay.
Adjudication was withheld, meaning a judge has not formally ruled on guilt or innocence. Typically, the defendant is placed on probation.
Pass was charged with welfare fraud again in 2003, after investigators wrote the corrections officer obtained $1,802 in Medicaid benefits and tried to secure another $1,400 in cash and food stamps. Again, adjudication was withheld. She left her South Bay job two years later.
Pass’ brushes with the law continued. In mid-summer 2008, Pass, arguing with her boyfriend over money, admitted to police she had picked up a pair of scissors and stabbed him in the arm. Charges of aggravated battery were filed, then dropped.
‘Taking care of business’
In 2003, according to police reports, Eushica Davis was seen knocking on a door in Clewiston with a pistol in her hand. She drove away, but someone called police. Approached by a cop, the South Bay prison guard first said she didn’t have a gun in her Jeep.
A search uncovered a loaded semi-automatic handgun, however, and Davis changed her story. According to the police officer, Davis said she had “just bought it from someone on the street so she could go take care of some business.”
On her way to booking, she reassured the detective that she had no intention of hurting a police officer or anyone else — only the man she had argued with recently.
Davis, who said she thought that as a corrections officer she was allowed to carry a gun, pleaded no contest to charges of carrying a concealed weapon. Adjudication was withheld.
The following year, Davis was charged with battery. Charges were dropped.
On a November morning in 2008, two black-masked men wielding a silver semi-automatic pistol confronted a Belle Glade truck driver. Holding a gun to the driver’s head, the two forced him into a warehouse before making off with his wallet.
The trail led police to South Bay and prison guard Tyrell J. Morris: He’s now doing 20 years at Martin Correctional for armed burglary and armed robbery.
There were others: Precious Northern was charged with petty theft the same year she left South Bay; the following year she was charged with domestic battery. Charges were dropped in both cases. Demetrice Rolle was charged with trying to smuggle items into prison and tampering with evidence. Charges were dropped.
Elisha Allen had been arrested for petty theft in 2002 — charges were dropped — hired at South Bay in 2007 and in 2010 confessed to transporting nine kilos of what she believed was cocaine, part of a sting operation netting several officers at public prisons as well.
Renay B. Evans started working at South Bay in 2005; in 2006, she was charged with aggravated battery. Charges were dropped. The following year, she was charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Charges were dropped. She left her job as a South Bay officer three years later.
Keshara S. Griffin was charged with battery in 2000. Adjudication was withheld and she started work at South Bay five years later.
In 2008, after she left South Bay, Griffin was convicted of a gun charge. Last year, she got probation for grand theft after trying to cash forged checks.
Then, this summer, Griffin began a three year sentence for felony animal torture. Griffin had caged three dogs in a utility shed covered in animal waste. One was dead and rotting. The other two had no water, no food and were too emaciated to move.
DeWayne Ulysses Hale went to work at South Bay in 1998. Within four years, he had been arrested on battery, petty theft and possession of pot charges, all of which were dropped.
In 2003, he was arrested on charges of possessing cocaine and placed on probation. He left South Bay.
Hale’s run-ins with the law picked up speed in the next few years, arrested on charges of burglary, grand theft auto and smuggling contraband into a jail. This time, criminal allegations stuck. The former prison guard is doing time for arson and robbery at a state work camp. He’s scheduled for release in 2018.
Cash in a shoe
In another case, a bungled smuggling scheme put South Bay Supervisor Michelle Terrien in harm’s way, part of a plot involving 40 $100 bills hidden in a shoe and an inmate who, despite prison security, had somehow managed to get his hands on bomb-making equipment.
According to sheriff’s investigators, Terrien admitted she and an inmate’s sister concocted a plan to get $4,000 to the inmate, Jordano Laguerre.
Laguerre reportedly had enormous prison gambling debts he needed to pay off. In fact, Terrien’s attorneys said Laguerre described extensive gambling at the prison, including inmates with thousands of dollars sewn into secret pockets.
Terrien told detectives she stuffed a wad of $100 bills in her left shoe when she arrived for her night shift, then placed it in a trash can for Laguerre to pick up. Later, Terrien would say the inmate had pictures of her daughter and threatened to harm her.
Laguerre said he never got the money.
Enraged, the prisoner started building a homemade bomb using empty honey bottles filled with gasoline and wired to batteries. The plan: Blow Terrien to bits.
He came close. At one point, he held Terrien hostage.
It’s not clear how Laguerre got the gas or wiring past guards.
Terrien was arrested on charges of grand theft in connection with the missing $4,000, smuggling contraband into prison and conspiracy to smuggle contraband.
A jury found Terrien guilty of two contraband charges and she was sentenced to a year in jail, according to appellate court records. The conviction for introducing contraband was overturned on appeal.
“You wouldn’t put up with that if it was the state” prisons, said said Ken Kopczynski, director of the Private Corrections Working Group, a nonprofit opposed to most prison privatization.
“We want people with higher ethics in prisons,” Kopczynski said. “Or at least some ethics.”
Palm Beach Post researchers Niels Heimeriks and Michelle Quigley contributed to this story.
THE PRIVATE PRISON SERIES
Oct. 27 Taxpayer savings? Minus a byzantine state formula, most private prisons haven’t saved
Tough-on-crime laws filled prisons: Florida legislators and prison companies both members of group that wrote model legislation
LAST WEEK Human rights: Patterns of rape, murder, squalor in lockups staffed by too few, often inexperienced guards
Judge says prison firm lied about guards in Idaho: In Florida, two companies fined over staffing
Who’s watching: Guards have been arrested themselves on charges from welfare fraud to grand-theft auto
The politics: Prison operators dominate behind the scenes: big campaign money, embedded allies and laws that grow prison business
The solution: Why conservatives and liberals agree on sentencing changes