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Continuing Brutality in Florida Prisons: 11 Guards Arrested Following Inmate Abuse

| September 13, 2014

The so-called Northwest Florida Reception Center, one of the Florida prisons plagued with guard brutality. (Google)

The so-called Northwest Florida Reception Center, one of the Florida prisons plagued with guard brutality. (Google)

Eleven prison guards were arrested and fired this week for allegedly abusing inmates — including five guards and a captain accused of pummeling a handcuffed and shackled prisoner — in separate incidents at two Florida prisons.

The firings are part of Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews’ attempt to reverse the beleaguered agency’s tarnished reputation in the wake of reports of widespread brutality and cover-ups involving at least two inmate deaths.

On Wednesday, five prison guards were arrested for allegedly stomping on a handcuffed and shackled inmate at the Northwest Florida Reception Center last month. A sixth — a captain — was also charged with taking part in the attack and lying about it.

A new warden took over at the prison Friday because William Churchwell, who had overseen the Panhandle facility, is retiring, according to Crews’ spokeswoman Jessica Cary.

The guards allegedly knocked inmate Jeremiah Tatum, who had been gassed with chemical agents, to the ground face-first and jumped on him while he was handcuffed and his legs were restrained and then tried to cover it up, according to probable-cause affidavits accompanying arrest documents.

Meanwhile, five guards at Lancaster Correctional Institution were arrested for battery on an inmate. According to probable-cause affidavits, Officers Earl Short, Stephen Nygard and Julious Riley and Sgts. Robert La Puma and Brittain Williams are accused of punching prisoners in the face.

According to the documents, La Puma and Williams allegedly pulled inmate Kristopher Sanchez off of his bunk on April 16 and “began to simultaneously strike him in the face with their closed fist” while asking Sanchez if he had brought weapons and contraband into the unit. Williams also kicked Sanchez in the head with his boot, and La Puma then kicked him in the head and upper torso area, according to investigators.

Short is accused of slapping and striking four inmates in the head on separate occasions between Dec. 30 and Jan. 14, according to probable-cause affidavits provided by the Department of Corrections.

Nygard and Riley slapped five new inmates in the head “because they didn’t move fast enough” during exercise drills at the Trenton institution on Dec. 30, according to the probable-cause affidavits.

As another sign of house-cleaning at the department, Crews also fired Okaloosa Correctional Institution guard Houston Biddle after Biddle was arrested for DUI and Desoto Correctional Institution guard Glen Gordon, who was arrested for operating a motor vehicle with a suspended or revoked driver’s license.

A department in crisis tries to clean up its act.

In the Northwest Florida Reception Center incident, Sgts. William Finch, James Perkins, Robert Miller, Christopher Christmas and Dalton Riley were charged with felony battery on an inmate. Capt. James Kirkland, accused of getting the sergeants to lie about what happened, was also charged with official misconduct. Crews also fired the workers, according to a news release issued by his office late Thursday.

“These arrests and terminations send a very clear message: We have zero tolerance for criminal activity by our staff. I expect everyone to do what is right and I have restated my commitment to hold those who do not to meet our expectations accountable for their wrongdoing,” Crews said.

According to the affidavits about the Aug. 5 incident at the Chipley institution, the five prison workers were taking Tatum, 31, to the cold-water shower after he had been gassed with chemical agents. It is unclear from the reports what prompted the gassing, or who ordered the use of chemical agents.

Videos showed that Tatum — who was handcuffed with his hands behind his back and whose legs were restrained, “thus preventing the inmate from protecting himself” — was “slammed face first to the concrete floor” by Finch and Riley, according to the arrest documents. According to the affidavits, Christmas and Perkins jumped on the back of Tatum’s legs while Miller pinned his head to the ground.

In sworn statements to inspectors, four of the guards said that Kirkland told them he “wanted Tatum taken to the ground” as the inmate was led to the decontamination shower shortly before 11 p.m.

“Captain Kirkland would make an audible noise and/or state that Inmate Tatum spit on him. The escorting officers were to then force Tatum to the ground,” the complaint reads. All five later said that Tatum never spit on anyone.

After the attack, Kirkland ordered Finch to write up accounts of the incident saying that Tatum had spit on him, according to the allegations. The other four officers said they did not write or sign the reports. The five underlings “aided in concealing and covering up Captain Kirkland’s illegal order to commit a malicious battery,” according to the arrest records.

The department’s inspector general is investigating three deaths at the Chipley institution, and a fourth is being reviewed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is now scrutinizing dozens of other inmate deaths at the request of Crews.

“We have an accountable system. I expect every inmate to live in a safe environment. I expect our correctional officers to be safe. And we expect accountability,” Gov. Rick Scott told reporters Friday after a campaign event in Crawfordville. “Secretary Crews has already done more to make sure people have the right training. We have a transparent system. But he’s going to hold people accountable and that’s what he’s doing.”

But the firings don’t go far enough, said Florida Justice Institute Executive Director Randall Berg, who represents prisoners in lawsuits against the corrections department.

“The culture hasn’t changed,” Berg said.

Department leaders have for too long ignored a multi-generational pattern of abuse, Berg said, and firing low-level workers won’t fix that.

“Crews needs to make certain that everyone from the top down is going to be held accountable. It’s not filtering down to the rank and file and it’s being ignored,” he said.

A week ago, Crews sent a memo to prison workers threatening to fire employees for wrongdoing. After a review, Crews said he found that his department has “not been applying a uniform standard” for abuse and that the inconsistency “has the potential of undermining the culture of professionalism that is necessary for running institutions with integrity.”

Crews’ reforms, announced Aug. 20, came on the heels of Miami Herald reports earlier this year that Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate at Dade Correctional Institution, died after guards allegedly forced him to shower in scalding hot water as punishment two years ago.

Crews fired the warden at the prison, cleaned house at other institutions where inmates have died under questionable circumstances, instituted new protocols for punishing wayward corrections workers and this week launched an inmate mortality website that includes limited information about more than 3,000 prisoner deaths since 2000.

Crews has also handed over investigations into at least 85 unresolved prison deaths to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which was already delving into nine mysterious inmate deaths. The FBI is also reportedly scrutinizing Suwannee Correctional Institution, where an inmate-led riot injured five prison guards in October. The April 2 death of inmate Shawn Gooden at the facility is one of those being examined by FDLE.

Meanwhile, four Department of Corrections investigators are suing the agency, saying they’ve been punished for calling attention to a cover-up about an inmate’s death. The whistleblowers claim they started an investigation into allegations of prison-guard misconduct at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2013. That investigation revealed that an earlier probe into the 2010 death of Randall Jordan-Aparo — whom the inspectors found was left to die in a cell after being gassed with chemical agents — “was false and misleading.”

On Tuesday, Disability Rights Florida sued Crews and Wexford Health Systems, a private vendor that provides health care services to prisons in the southern portion of the state, alleging that torture and abuse of prisoners, including Rainey, had been ignored for years.

–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida

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16 Responses for “Continuing Brutality in Florida Prisons: 11 Guards Arrested Following Inmate Abuse”

  1. John Smallberries says:

    No doubt all that were arrested and then fired were really upstanding police and this is just a big misunderstanding.

  2. Sherry Epley says:

    Right ON John!

    Connect the dots between this story and the one last week about the police in Florida using deadly force with impunity for 20 years: . . . and the one about Cutting Legal Aid for the Poor:

    There is a clear deep rooted connection here. We live in a culture of tragic DIVISION race and of the “Haves” and “Have Nots”. . . which continues to create these incidents of OPPRESSION on several levels:

    1. Unbridled Authority/Brutality AGAINST the Rights of Our Citizens. . . especially those of color and less financial resources

    2. A Stripping of Resources for the Poor (who are often persons of color) to have Equal Justice in a Court of Law

    3. Mass OBSTRUCTION by Congress of ANY reforms/policies put forth/supported by our TWICE elected President of the USA. . . a person of color

    4. The Gathering of Arms (and the laws that support them) by Paranoid Survivalists Who Kill With Impunity and Still Walk the Streets Because of the “Stand Your Ground” Mentality that is Spreading like Wildfire

    5. Hiding Behind Religion to Promote Homophobia, Chauvinism, Attacks on Women’s Rights to Choose

    6. Degradation of Education in “Public” Schools. . . with the Diversion of Funding into Private Schools

    Yes, of course, I could cite many, many other examples. . . symptoms of the same cancer that is not so slowly destroying our country from within.

    The cancer by any other name: Fascism, Racism, Bigotry, Prejudice. The cause of the possibly fatal disease can be narrowed down to one common denominator : THE PROMOTION OF FEAR AND HATRED OF OTHER HUMAN BEINGS!

    Please think this through thoroughly. . . WHO is making you afraid of your neighbor? Afraid of those with different/new ideas? Afraid of those in another county or state? Afraid of those who have a different spirituality? Afraid of those who have a different skin color? Afraid of those who speak a different language or eat different food? Afraid of those who peacefully seek a better life for themselves and their families?

    WHO has taken away your courage to love and embrace your fellow human beings?

    When you begin to stand up for yourself and see how you are being disrespectfully manipulated into a quivering mass of fear and hatred, you can begin to move away from that madness and become a force for change. A force that will deflect our downward spiral into the hell of hatred and lift us all up to live according to the feelings and behaviors of our higher angels.

    • Outsider says:

      1. I agree, and it’s being carried out at the highest levels of our federal government via the IRS to trample the rights of people to air their views. And if you don’t agree, you haven’t been paying attention.

      2. That’s the game; give them just enough money to survive and encourage them to create more kids they can’t afford so they are forever dependent on, and loyal to the federal government. If you don’t believe me, then just look at how successful they have been at eradicating poverty.

      3. I’m assuming you’re talking about Republicans in the House, because you would never admit that Harry Reid has personally held up hundreds of bills passed by the House simply to protect Democrats and the President from the consequences of voting on them. Why else do you think Obama is waiting until after the election to continue his lawless executive orders on immigration? You want to blame Congress for everything, but maybe you should blame yourself for electing an unqualified, incompetent president. If he had some real world political or business experience, he would possess real negotiating skills necessary to reconcile two opposing groups. Instead, he said “I can’t work with this congress,” which is more of an indictment on himself than anyone else. And thank you for pointing out that he is a “person of color.” Who would have known otherwise? You know, I think one of the most profound statements ever uttered was Dr. King’s when he said you should judge a man by the content of his character, not by the color of his skin. It is “people of color” who continue to emphasize their difference in skin tone via the black congressional caucus, the NAACP, etc. to the point where I don’t think you understood what he meant. How are we going to get past this racial crap if you keep differentiating yourself because of your skin tone?
      4. While I am armed every time I leave the house, and have ventured I to Walmart and Publix and numerous other local establishments with a weapon, I have shot no one. There are millions of others who do the same. We are not paranoid, we are realists. We see the crime going on every day around us and don’t want to be forced to stay at home because some criminal might want to take advantage of others. Did you see the video of the Grove Boys Pierre put up here a few weeks back? They had guns, they had drugs, they were threatening “you might not make it home?” Am I supposed to let my family shop in the same stores and walk the same streets as these self-professed thugs and just hope they don’t commit a crime against us? Sorry, but it’s not happening. The fact is, just knowing that many people are legally armed to defend themselves is a deterrent to people committing a crime in the first place. This alone has saved untold lives on both sides. The stand your ground laws allow people to fight back against crime, and I will remind you, since you are thinking about it, Trayvon Martin was in the process of committing a serious crime when he was killed.
      6. I don’t have to hide behind anything to have my opinions. I am against homosexuality simply because it seems abnormal to me. I have the right to choose that opinion, even though some think only women have a right to choose an abortion. Now I don’t go around disparaging or tying gay people up to my pickup truck and dragging them around town mind you; I just have an opinion. And as far as I know, women have freedom to choose whatever they want. They can choose what car to drive, what food to eat for dinner, who to have sex with and who not to. The real issue, in my mind, is to protect the right to a life once a child is formed, living, and feeling. I have a problem when in this country more people are outraged when someone kicks a puppy than when a child is ripped to pieces alive, or suffers saline burns, or just gets jabbed with a needle big enough to suck his or her brains out simply because it hasn’t travelled down the birth canal. Do these kids, who I assume half would be women, have the right to choose whether or not to live? I though women’s right to choose was universal.
      6. All I can say about this one is that the public schools were degraded long before school choice (there’s that “choosing” word again, that you’re so fond of but think should be limited to decisions ending a life but not choosing a school.) The whole reason privatization came about was to give low income people the option of getting their kids out of failing schools.
      These are just a few thoughts from someone who I’m sure you’ll consider and uneducated knuckle dragger, but I really couldn’t let all your points go uncontested. Have a nice day.

  3. concern says:

    This is ridiculous, you dont know what these prison guard go through until you walk a mile in there shoes. There the ones behind the gate with the murders that you people dont want in the streets and your so quick to throw them under the bus. Sad

    • Anonymous says:

      So killing them makes it right?

    • John Smallberries says:

      Dude I hear you man, it’s gotta be tough dealing with prisoners every day. Gotta bust a nigger in the head every once in a while so that you maintain some level of professionalism right? I mean, it’s not like they are people or anything, and really if they didn’t want to do the time they wouldn’t have committed the crime, right? I mean, they’re just mud-colored savages am I right? Gotta make sure that the prisoners respect your authority.

    • Nancy N. says:

      Fewer than 20% of the inmates at Florida DOC are locked up for killing someone. The vast majority of inmates are there due to much more minor crimes like burglary, drugs. A surprising percentage of DOC inmates are locked up for non-violent offenses.

      People don’t lose their basic human and constitutional rights when they are convicted of a crime. Being convicted of a felony isn’t a free pass for any guard that feels like it to turn you into a punching bag. Inmates have died at the hands of the Department of Corrections – and I’m not talking about the ones given lethal injections. It’s not supposed to be the guards’ jobs to determine who lives and who dies in our justice system.

      There are many decent people working at the Department of Corrections trying to do their jobs properly while respecting the rights of the people that they are charged with supervising. Unfortunately, those who chose to behave in an unprofessional manner ruin it for the ones who are conducting themselves respectably and ethically. Everyone who works there should want to see the institution cleaned up, so they can be proud of it again and not have their reputations sullied by the bad apples.

      • Anonymous says:

        Well said Nancy could not have worded it as nicley and directly as you have put fourth! Mr.Crews be expecting several more names that need to be removed from Hamilton Annex.

    • Hismom1110 says:

      So I guess the stress of working at a medical unit is really stressful? Tell that to my son who was going thru chem for stage 3 cancer, when these animals, pulled him into a room, put on rubber gloves, ( wouldn’t want evidence). 3 co’s beat him, kicked him, and flung him like a rag doll into a desk!! Mind you, my son was weak, thin, and fighting to stay alive with cancer. Yea, really stressful. They also like to throw inmates in wheelchairs to the ground, and kick the crap out of them. If they can’t handle it, find another job!!

    • What concerns says:

      Guess what? I do now what it’s like to walk in these Correctional Officers shoes, and like other law enforcement agencies/Judicial Systems they abuse the power they were entrusted with. I could go on and on but it’s not going to help any. Region 1 is so bad it’s unreal.

  4. Mom of inmate at Lancaster says:

    My son has was kicked in the chest for having his arms in his uniform shirt to keep warm when he first went to Lancaster. As I see it, he is at Lancaster as punishment, he should not have to be abused physically or verbally either (which is a common every day thing also), the guards are being paid to watch the inmates not abuse them. He has witnessed so many inmates being abused I am very sad for them.

    • Jray says:

      Amazing how some of you people can stand behind corrupt wardens and guards when the facts of abuse are obvious by prisoners one deserves to be slapped,beaten, cursed,etc. I’m sure you idiots would feel different if one of the prisoners who died due to illegal acts of violence were one of your children. Great job mr. Crews for attempting to correct the abuse problems and get professional guards and person ell to run the prisons.

      • What concerns says:

        Mr. Crews, keep up the good work, it’s about time someone stood up to these bullies. These inmates are there to do their time, and yes, you do have those inmates that are just plain screw-ups, but that’s why these CO’s were trained to deal with these type of inmates. The Fl Dept of Corrections should also know how to deal with CO’s that think they can abuse these inmates, not all CO’s are bad, it’s the bad apples that make it hard for the rest. Their supervisors know exactly what’s going on, they have known from the beginning but refuse to address the situation.

    • Anonymous says:

      my son was at lancaster last year and abuse happened daily there.

  5. Mom of inmate at Lancaster says:

    The way I see it is they are put in prison as punishment, not to be punished or abused.

  6. Sandi says:

    Professionalism and integrity??? What the hell is that guy smoking?

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