MIAMI — Anxious to defuse a scandal involving two prison inmates who obtained their freedom by forging release orders, Florida officials said Thursday that they had traced the scheme to an inmate who taught others how to carry out the deceptions.
The scheme originated in the computers of prison libraries and relied on former inmates on the outside to “fine tune” and print the phony documents, officials said.
Gerald M. Bailey, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, told reporters in Tallahassee that four additional suspects — all current or former Department of Corrections inmates — had been identified as participants in the scheme.
The investigation was set off in October when two inmates, Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, both 34 and serving life sentences for murder, were recaptured in a Panama City motel room after being released from the Franklin Correctional Institution in Carabelle, Fla., under orders that turned out to be fraudulent.
One of the four additional suspects, Terrance Goodman, a 37-year-old former inmate who befriended some of the others in prison, was said to have driven Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Walker to the motel and obtained a room for them there. He was arrested in Panama City earlier Thursday and charged with harboring fugitives and conspiracy to commit escape.
Mr. Goodman was the only man in the scheme who had remained at large, although officials said the investigation was still in progress and that there might be other arrests.
The news that inmates had been able to write their own tickets out of prison was deeply embarrassing to state officials, who are grappling with high crime rates and a growing prison population.
“The Department of Corrections takes very seriously its primary mission of protecting the safety of Florida’s families,” the department’s secretary, Michael Crews, said Thursday. He added that in the wake of the most recent escapes, there were new procedures in place to prevent bogus releases of inmates, including a requirement that any release order be verified by the judge who imposed the sentence at trial.
“Until that verification if received, we will not release that inmate,” Mr. Crews said. He added that the department was also reviewing the amount of access inmates have to computers and documents in prison libraries. “Those things that are not required constitutionally, we’ll be moving pretty quickly to remove those,” Mr. Crews said.
A major factor in the deceptions was the inmates’ ability to communicate with accomplices on the outside via smuggled cellphones, Mr. Crews said. “Yes, we are watching them,” he said, “but to say that 24 hours a day you have an eye on every one — we just can’t do it.”
Mr. Bailey, the Department of Law Enforcement commissioner, said prisoners also make use of a privilege called legal mail, which is uncensored and unedited and is intended for communications between inmates and their lawyers.
“We think they were using that,” he said, to send the text of release orders to others outside the prison system. They, in turn, would print the text on paper for eventual delivery by mail to a clerk of the court. The scheme, Mr. Bailey said, appears to have been confined to current and former inmates.
“We have no indication that anyone in the prison system or the clerk’s office was involved in this fraud,” the commissioner said.
He identified as the “engineer” of the scheme an inmate named Nydeed Nashaddai, who used forged documents to leave a Pinellas County jail in 2009. He was captured 16 hours later and sentenced to 20 years for escape. He was then sent to the same Franklin County prison from which the two most recent escapes occurred.
Mr. Bailey said Thursday that Mr. Nashaddai, 48, who was in prison for forging checks, had taught the elements of his release-order forgeries to fellow inmates, including Mr. Walker and Mr. Jenkins, and that additional charges had been levied against him as a result.
In 2011, two years after his brief fling with freedom, Mr. Nashaddai tried to escape again using fake paperwork, and involved two other inmates, officials said. One was Jeffrey Forbes, 30, who had been convicted of trying to kill a police officer and was charged Thursday with forgery and attempted escape. The other was Mr. Jenkins, who like Mr. Nashaddai was unsuccessful on that occasion, but who managed to get out for three weeks this fall. As soon as Mr. Jenkins was free, he forged release documents for Mr. Walker, officials said.
A former inmate named Willie Slater Jr. received Mr. Jenkins’s and Mr. Walker’s fraudulent documents in the mail and ensured their delivery to the Orange County clerk’s office, officials said.
Mr. Slater had been serving time for a home invasion when he met Mr. Jenkins in prison, officials said. Mr. Jenkins, who was serving a life sentence for killing Mr. Slater’s brother, appears to have reached a deal with Mr. Slater to get them both out of prison. Mr. Jenkins claimed responsibility for Mr. Slater’s home invasion, and Mr. Slater was released.
In helping with Mr. Jenkins’s fraudulent release, officials said, Mr. Slater was returning a “significant” favor.