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Prison officials lose two years of emails in botched repair

TALLAHASSEE — Every email sent or received from the embattled Florida Department of Corrections for nearly two years was destroyed in 2012 — a massive loss of the records that help document the agency’s actions.

The department acknowledged only recently, in response to inquiries over the past 12 months from the Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau, that emails from January 2007 through September 2008 were destroyed. The department’s top information officer, Douglas B. Smith, called it a “significant loss of data.”

“All data sent and received by DOC staff statewide through email from each institution, community corrections, health services, and all other business units within the department for the entire year of 2007 and from January through September of 2008 were destroyed and are no longer retrievable,” Smith wrote in a letter dated Aug. 6 that Tribune/Scripps received only last week.

Smith said the records were destroyed in March 2012 during “an attempt to fix a hardware problem” by the Southwood Shared Resource Center, a state-owned data center that houses information for state departments and agencies.

The destruction of such a large number of public records is significant because it eliminates a trail of electronic evidence the agency is required to maintain to document its actions. State agencies are required to maintain and make public records accessible to citizens under Florida’s Sunshine Law and are required to retain documents, including e-mails and other electronic messages, for a period based on the subject of the communication.

According to the state’s retention policy for electronic communication, “Retention periods are determined by the content, nature, and purpose of records, and are set based on their legal, fiscal, administrative, and historical values, regardless of the format in which they reside or the method by which they are transmitted.”

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The state policy spells out a number of reasons for the retention requirements: to comply with financial and performance audits, grant requirements, potential legal action and other administrative functions.

Gov. Rick Scott did not know the records were destroyed, said Frank Collins, his communications director.

“We were not aware of the issue and we are looking it,” Collins said.

Scott is in a heated re-election bid against Democrat Charlie Crist, Florida’s Republican governor from 2007 to 2010. The destroyed records were created during Crist’s administration.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who crafted the Senate’s budget for the Corrections Department during the past two years, said he finds the records destruction “disturbing.”

“Two things are troubling. First, when you make a records request, you expect a timely response. That clearly was not the case,” he said. “Second, the destruction of records is always troubling.”

In this case, the destroyed e-mails likely chronicled an important time for the department.

♦  In 2007, the state was under a lethal injection moratorium after a prisoner took 34 minutes to die during a botched 2006 execution. Crist signed a death warrant in July 2007 that was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

♦  In October 2007, eight prison officials were acquitted in the death of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old black youth held at a Panhandle boot camp. The verdict sparked outrage after a trial featuring video of guards beating Anderson. The case, in part, prompted Time magazine to publish a story titled “What’s Wrong with Florida’s Prisons.”

♦  In fiscal 2007, more than 30,000 incidents involving the corrections department were reported to the office of the department’s inspector general — a 53 percent increase over five years. Those reports include complaints against staff, inmate injuries and escape attempts.

Reggie Garcia, a Florida clemency lawyer, said paper copies often are kept in addition to emails for information including inmate behavior reports, job performance and education achievement.

But important documents could be lost, he said.

“To the extent important legal information is only kept in e-mail format, and I can’t say for sure that it is, that is a major problem,” Garcia said.

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Scott’s first term, which began in 2010, also has been a tumultuous time for the department.

The agency has come under fire for the deaths of prisoners, including a female inmate who was found dead 10 days after writing a letter telling family she feared for her life. At the same Ocala center where this occurred, letters reported by the Miami Herald assert that prisoners are “pawns” in power struggles among staff.

In another case, guards at the Dade Correctional Institute are accused of leaving a prisoner in a scalding hot shower to die. The incident is being investigated.

Corrections Secretary Michael Crews fired 32 prison guards in September, a move first reported by the Herald. In a memo, Crews admitted there was a “lack of consistent consequences” for prison staff who committed crimes.

The Corrections Department’s Aug. 6 letter acknowledging destruction of the emails was sent on letterhead listing Kenneth Tucker as corrections secretary. Tucker left the agency in 2012 and was replaced by Crews.

The department’s letter was in response to a public records request filed by the Tribune/Scripps Capitol Bureau in October 2013, 18 months after the emails were destroyed. Responding to questions about the delay in providing the records, Jessica Cary, a department spokeswoman, said old equipment and staffing shortages slowed the response.

“I understand your frustration,” she wrote in an Aug. 5 email. “The Department of Corrections currently does not use a true electronic mail archiving system.”

In the same email, she said the department’s priority is “public safety and security.”

Later that day, Cary sought a mailing address to respond to the records request. The agency’s letter did not arrive for more than two months after that e-mail exchange.

The department did not respond to requests to answer questions raised by the release of the documents.

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