Review commission issues final report on jails

09/10/08 Seán Kinane
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The Independent Review Commission on Hillsborough County Jails gave its final report to Sheriff David Gee this morning in Ybor City. The report says the county’s jails “have many more strengths than weaknesses.” But the panel made 40 recommendations for improvement.

Sheriff Gee called for the six-month investigation following several reports of abuse in Hillsborough jails; the most famous incident involved quadriplegic Brian Sterner being dumped from his wheelchair by an detention deputy at the Orient Road Jail in January. Although Gee had not read the report, he thanked the 11-person commission chaired by James Sewell.

“I will respond in writing to Dr. Sewell and to each member by copy of the letter as to all of the recommendations after my staff reviews it. Obviously I do need to read it and see the things that I think that we would agree on where we need to make improvements or we could make changes. And I will certainly respond to each and every one of you with that.”

The commission met 12 times between March and August.

James Sewell, who chaired the commission, said that improvements need to be made, even in what he called one of the “strongest” jail systems in the country.

“That being said, I think that we recognize several things we want to emphasize. One, bad things can happen in good places. What occurs after is the measure of the agency and its leadership. And what we saw is a whole lot of hard effort immediately after the Sterner incident and other incidents, to correct behaviors that should have been dealt with.”

The three main areas the commission examined for patterns of bad behavior were use of force by deputies, internal affairs investigations and inmate grievances, Sewell said. The commission formed a work group for each of those three areas and their findings were included in the final report.

“We’re comfortable that we’ve had a good, fair, clear examination of the kinds of issues. Again, I think that the important bottom line is that the Sheriff’s Office has taken a whole lot of aggressive steps to make sure that incidents like this don’t occur again. They have in place a number of policies and procedures. They have significantly improved management oversight, and their training program is exemplary, particularly in their plans for the future.”

The Sterner incident was recorded on video, but there was no audio. The report calls on the Sheriff’s Office to “explore the addition of sound recording devices at designated areas of the jail, particularly in certain areas of Central Booking, to supplement the existing video recording equipment.” Sewell said what happened to Sterner was not typical for the county’s jail system.

“The Sterner incident particularly was an aberration. It was an aberration in conduct by that particular detention deputy and it was an aberration in that jail. We believe after reviewing it that the procedures and policies and practices in place, both then and now should discourage that kind of conduct. More importantly, since that time, the training and the management oversight responsibility oversights that have occurred have strengthened the ability of the managers of that jail to ensure that that conduct does not happen. And further, the discipline that occurred as a result should send a clear message within the agency that this kind of behavior is not tolerated.”

The detention deputy who dumped Sterner, Charlette Marshall-Jones, resigned and was charged with criminal abuse of a person with disabilities. Internal affairs reports released in August revealed that a corporal was fired and a second deputy resigned. Six other employees were suspended without pay or were reprimanded for not intervening. Sewell said there were “a bunch of things happening at once” that led to Marshall-Jones’ mistreatment of Sterner.

Sewell said that later that day Sterner was also transported incorrectly, he was placed on the floor of a van without being secured with safety devices. But Sewell said the commission found “no disturbing patterns” in any of the three areas on which they concentrated.

Major Jim Previtera is in charge of training the county’s detention personnel. He said there are only two reasons a deputy would use force in a jail -- to maintain order or to protect someone in danger. Previtera said there was a “shared sense of disgrace” among officers about the Sterner incident.

“Not just detention deputies, but deputies out on the road. There’s law enforcement deputies that will tell you that they had people approach them in public and share their disgrace at what they saw. I hope that the Sheriff doesn’t mind me sharing this, but I was with the Sheriff when he first saw the video and I don’t think I could articulate our mutual disgrace at what we saw and the embarrassment and the anger at what we saw.”

One recommendation in the commission’s report says: “More formalized training should be provided to medical staff on the signs and symptoms of substance abuse and mental health …; on appropriate intervention strategies; on assessment techniques; and on enhanced clinical skills.”

A related recommendation calls on “Sheriff Gee [to] assume a leadership position within the Florida Sheriff’s Association in supporting the passage of the [Florida] Supreme Court’s mental health/criminal justice legislation.”

Commission chair James Sewell said inmates should have the unhindered ability to fill out grievance reports about their treatment in jail.

Commission member Lorie Fridell is an associate professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida. She is a member of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and is an expert on racially biased policing. Fridell told WMNF it is important to strengthen the supervisory function, which she said is an issue across the nation in law enforcement and jails.

“We were disturbed not only by what the deputy did, but why what the supervisors did not do. … Some of the things that they need to do in the Hillsborough County Jail, they need to increase the number of people that vie for supervisory positions so that they can then be selective and choose the best people. And in choosing the best people, not just looking at who knows the policies, which is what we do nationally to evaluate supervisors, but look at who has the potential for managing employees to produce their best, most professional behavior. So a lot of our recommendations do look at how do we increase the strength of the people that are vying for the supervisory positions, how do we train them to be good people managers and how do we support them in that work.”

Photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF

Independent Review Commission on Hillsborough County Jails Final Report

Independent Review Commission on Jails

Hillsborough County’s Sheriff’s Office

YouTube video of Brian Sterner’s mistreatment

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