On May 8, 1997, officers at the Charlotte Correctional Institution asked inmate Lakeith Amir-Sharif to produce his "shave pass," a medical document allowing him to have facial hair. Apparently, he didn't respond fast enough.
Several correctional officers burst through his cell door and began kicking and punching him. They dragged him downstairs, threw him against the wall and beat him with handcuffs. When it was all over, Sharif had gaping wounds on his head and had to be hospitalized for 22 days. Pictures taken the day after the beating show his eyes completely swollen shut.
The guards' explanation: Sharif had a seizure and came out combative.
In the same prison three months later, convicted killer John Edwards sliced his arms with a sharpened identification card after being subjected to five days of physical abuse. He died the next day, stripped naked and shackled to an infirmary bed.
Ten offficers of the Florida Department of Corrections -- or COs, as they're known -- were charged with violating Edwards' civil rights. Three pleaded guilty and testified. The other seven claimed that Edwards was a Satanist who attacked officers, and that any abuse was done by the three guards who admitted guilt. The jury acquitted the seven; the other three got three years' probation.
In April, 1999, Union Correctional Institution inmate Lendy Holmes -- who the other inmates called "bug" because he was so frail -- complained to a CO that he was having chest pains. According to fellow inmate George Crossley, a former radio evangelist who served more than three years on a conviction of hiring a hit man to hide an affair, the guard responded, "Nigger, I don't care if you die, you're gonna work!"
Rather than returning to his lawn-mowing assignment, Crossley says, Holmes begged to be sent to confinement, where he could receive medical attention. Instead of honoring the request, the guard punched Holmes in the chest. He died later that night of a heart attack, according to the state's autopsy report.
"I don't doubt that he had a heart attack," Crossley says. "But [the guard] helped him along the way." After his release earlier this year, Crossley became a prison advocate, collecting letters from inmates across the state. One, from an inmate at Union sent last March, reads: "Dear George! How are you ... They kicked the shit out of me on Sunday night while cuffed behind the back for a created incident. And one [sergeant] threatened my life! [He said] if I tell on it, he'll come back here and kill me. He absolutely meant it."
Perhaps the most outrageous case of guards attacking inmates came on July 17, 1999, when eight COs at the Florida State Prison at Starke, allegedly attacked and killed death-row inmate Frank Valdes a few days after he had threatened to alert the media about abuses toward other inmates.
According to the COs, Valdes was a disruptive inmate who had to be subdued with force. They claimed that, hours after an initial skirmish, he killed himself by jumping twice off of his top bunk and hitting his head against the concrete floor. That story, however, doesn't explain how all of his ribs were broken, why his testicles were swollen to the size of grapefruit and how three boot prints became imbedded in his flesh. The guards go to trial in October.
In a press release, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Moore called the event an "aberration." Not everyone agrees. Prisoner advocates from across the state will converge on Orlando Sept. 15, as Amnesty International and other human-rights groups try to prove that the abuse in Florida prisons is rampant -- and often ignored by the DOC.
"Everyday people don't know what's going on in the prison system," says Rita Lucey, legislative chair of the Orlando chapter of Amnesty. That, she says, is the reason for the conference: public awareness. She hopes that the estimated 75 attendees who will crowd into the small Marks Street Senior Citizens Center will light a fuse that changes things.
Indeed, things may already be changing. State Rep. Frank Peterman, a St. Petersburg Democrat, plans to introduce a a bill next session that would create an independent citizens' review board to examine allegations of abuse. The current system of internal review, while well intentioned, is not enough, he says: "It's nothing like having an outside group to help oversee the situation. The board will serve as a balancing rod."
At her small Titusville home, Kay Lee has about 600 letters from prisoners across the state, detailing every imaginable form of abuse: Aside from horrific tales of beatings and murders, prisoners tell her that COs plant drugs on them, allow them to be sexually assaulted and flip over their food trays, for starters.
She heard of one prisoner who only speaks Korean and can't understand the guards' orders. "They think they can beat understanding into him," she says. She's trying to send him a Korean-English dictionary.
Lee also has an envelope full of an inmate's dead skin, which peeled from his body after he was pepper-gassed and not properly rinsed off, allowing the spray to eat at his flesh. "He was not mentally ill when he went in," Lee says, "but he's mentally ill now."
"I'm sure [the activists are] well-intentioned," says Florida Police Benevolent Association director David Murrell, "but if they're getting information from inmates -- they're not the most reliable source around."
Lakeith Amir-Sharif, for example, is hardly a sympathetic character: He's been in out and of prison since 1983, convicted of a variety of crimes from selling cocaine to burglary to assaulting a police officer to committing credit card fraud. He has tattoos paying homage to gangs, and doesn't think highly of many of the COs. Moreover, he's been involved in prison-advocacy issues since early in his criminal career. One could argue that such activity makes him more likely to have an anti-prison vendetta.
So, the question is whether to believe him when he contends, "They were beating inmates at Charlotte -- it was like a ritual." Or when he claims that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement botched its investigation into his claims. Indeed, Lee is hearing some stories secondhand, sometime third; and many of her stories are nearly impossible to verify.
While Murrell doesn't discount all of the stories, he says the vast majority are bunk.
As of press time, the DOC had not provided figures requested by Orlando Weekly regarding how many grievances are filed each year and how many of those result in disciplinary action. But DOC spokesman Sterling Ivey admits the "total number of grievances is going to be huge. [Prisoners] file grievances for everything. Many of those are without merit."
Lee, who formed a group called Making the Walls Transparent, believes the stories of Sharif and other prisoners despite their unfavorable backgrounds. "I know [they're true]," she says. "I mean, I know. I've got hospital records; I get photographs."
Still, as Crossley points out, "We say yes, they say no" -- and nothing changes.
The DOC line, Lee adds, is that "all inmates are liars, and all guards tell the truth."
The October trial of the guards accused of killing Frank Valdes, and the sure-to-come attention by news media, will give Lee and other activists a new platform. And, the circumstances surrounding that death may give their claims more credibility.
The story began two weeks before Valdes died, when a handful of inmates at the at the Hamilton Correctional Institution in Jasper (near Jacksonville) led a hunger strike. The guards decided to make examples of the five ringleaders, who would later become known as the Hamilton Five. Charles Jerry was among them.
On July 3, 1999, Jerry was allegedly handcuffed and beaten, causing a gash to open in the back of his head. Later, he was stripped and thrown into a holding cell, and the next day he and the other strike leaders were transferred to the Florida State Prison's X-Wing, where Valdes was imprisoned.
As soon as they got there, the beatings began, according to Jerry's wife, Andrea. Another of the five, Willie Matthews, had his jaw broken. "My husband, they just stomped him," Andrea says, "stitched him up, then busted the stitches."
Valdes died for Jerry, Kay Lee says. When Valdes spoke up and demanded the beatings stop, he wound up dead. In fact, Andrea says, the FSP guards dragged Valdes' body in front of her husband's cell and taunted him, "You'll be next."
Now that Jerry is a key witness in the upcoming trial, he doesn't expect to live much longer, according to Andrea. "They let him know, 'We got ways we can take you out and make it look like an accident.'" What kept him alive so far, she says, is his sheer girth; He weighs nearly 250 pounds, whereas Valdes was smaller and more frail.
Bob Pauley, who's co-writing a book on Valdes' death with his widow, Wanda, says, "Before he even went to death row, he told Wanda 'they're going to beat me up there.'" Still, Pauley adds, Valdes didn't expect the beatings to be fatal.
"For years and months," says the wrongful-death lawsuit Wanda Valdes filed against the correctional officers, "inmates at Florida State Prison have been subjected to gratuitous and sadistic beatings for no justifiable reason. These beatings have occurred with such frequency and regularity that the conduct has become routine."
Such violence also was routinely covered up, as DOC Secretary Michael Moore acknowledged shortly after the murder. He told the Associated Press that his office was cooperating with the investigation into Valdez's death, but the individual officers were not. "It's a culture of close-knittedness," Moore said. He explained that in the rural counties of north Florida, where the state's toughest prisons are located, many of the guards are related to one another, and they're not willing to snitch on their family members, even in the case of an inmate's death.
"The culture of corrections," explains a DOC official who asked to remain anonymous, "is, 'Everybody hates us, so we're gonna stick together.'"
In announcing the firing of five of the guards allegedly involved in Valdes' death, Moore said, "I deeply regret that the Valdes incident has caused some to think that the actions of a few reflect on the department as a whole. We cannot and will not tolerate conduct that gives the impression that we condone the abuse of inmates in our custody."
After Valdes' death, the corrections department ordered that all uses of force be videotaped, says DOC spokeswoman Joellyn Rackleff. Moreover, two years ago Moore directed the Inspector General's office, which investigates inmates' claims, to report to the DOC's central office -- not to individual wardens, as it previously had. That, she says, has improved accountability vastly.
Lee doesn't think so. "If they don't condone abuse," she responds, "why is it so hard to get an honest investigation? When we know something's wrong, and we know the names and give the dates? They're not isolated incidents."
In 1994, the newly christened Republican Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act to cut down on so-called frivolous lawsuits. "PLRA limited severely the access of inmates to petition federal courts," says University of Oklahoma law professor Meg Penrose. "The courts applied that retroactively."
The PLRA, says Wanda Valdes' attorney, Guy Rubin, was passed largely because federal courts were being inundated with prisoner lawsuits, many of which claimed abusive treatment. While some were valid, Rubin says, others weren't. The new law forces inmates to exhaust their grievances before bringing their cases to court.
But Florida's grievance process, Rubin says, has "completely broken down. The Inspector General's office is supposed to investigate. We have books of grievances -- they've been dismissed out of hand."
Rubin, who also represents Valdes witness Willie Matthews, points out that the DOC rejected an emergency grievance in which Matthews claimed his life was in danger. The DOC said his situation was not being an emergency -- even after the guards had killed Valdes.
The problem with grievances, in essence, is that inmates have to ask the guards (about whom they're often complaining) for the grievance form, then have to turn it back in to another guard. Only one prison -- Santa Rosa (near Pensacola) -- uses a "lock-box" system by which guards don't know who filed the forms, says Christopher Jones of the Gainesville-based prison-advocacy group Florida Institutional Legal Services.
The problem, advocates say, is that the very process of turning in grievances puts prisoners in danger. If they're complaining about a CO's abuse, that CO will almost certainly know when they turn their grievances in.
The grievance process and physical abuse are just two of many concerns activists cite in their litany of complaints against the DOC. Another is sexual abuse.
From the moment he entered Florida State Prison, convicted killer Michael Moskowitz was a target. His mother was a Florida CO, and inmates wanted to "turn him out" gay, he told the FBI in a 1999 complaint. The guards allegedly played along. In his FBI statement and in letters to Sid Kleiner, coordinator of Jewish Prisoner Services International, Moskowitz said that one corrections officer forced him to masturbate and stick things in his rectum; later, he was made to mop a hallway naked and wear bikini briefs on his forehead while other inmates threatened to rape and beat him.
Then, Moskowitz said, the guards allowed a "rollback": They opened his cell and permitted another inmate to rape him. To protect himself, Moskowitz became an inmate's "boyfriend." That inmate, in exchange for sexual favors, would protect him from the others.
Unfortunately, the "boyfriend" had AIDS. Now, Moskowitz is tested frequently to determine whether he, too, has contracted HIV.
"I believe the activists have a role to play," says DOC spokeswoman Rackleff. "But society has deemed that we will have prisons. Prisons enclose the most dangerous members of society. Things happen." Though they are well trained, she says, "Officers are human."
The actions of a few bad COs have reflected poorly on the rest of the DOC's 28,000 employees, she argues, noting that the department is simply following the laws the legislature makes. It was the legislature that ordered DOC not to purchase any more televisions or sports equipment and mandated that prisoners serve 85 percent of their sentences. For COs, there are few privileges left to reward inmates for good behavior.
For conditions to change, the laws will have to be changed. As one defensive DOC employee put it, "Sometimes the activists' humanity and compassion would be better spent changing policies in the political arena."
Three percent of American adults -- some 6.5 million people -- are in the criminal-justice system: in jail, on parole or on probation. Thanks to zero-tolerance policies and the drug war, more and more people are going to prison even as the violent-crime rate decreases. In Florida, it's no different.
The Sunshine State now has 72,000 incarcerated people. Because of the state's tough sentencing guidelines, that number most likely will continue to grow. And, Lee argues, overcrowding may be at the root of the prison system's problems.
"It's the bigger [prisons] that go bad first," she says. Based on the letters she's received from inmates across the state, the worst prisons are the larger ones in the north and on the Panhandle: Union, Santa Rosa and Florida State Prison. At those facilities, she and other advocates say, black or Hispanic inmates from farther south often mingle with rural, racist guards.
But as the inmate population grows and prisons in the southern part of the state, such as Brevard and Dade correctional institutions, fill up, the same problems follow, she says.
With any crowded prison, overheating and ventilation become pressing issues. Most don't have air conditioning, and -- for safety reasons -- there aren't a lot of open windows to allow air flow. Partly because of this situation, diseases are a primary concern.
Out of 394 deaths that occurred at Florida prisons from 1999 to February, 2001, 79 were due to AIDS and 10 were attributed to "infectious and parasitic diseases," according to DOC records. Moreover, 148 other inmatess died of respiratory, circulatory or nervous system "diseases," which can mean anything from cancer to heart attacks to tuberculosis.
Medical care is "abysmal," Jones says. "It's not a place to get sick. I don't think [medical care] is a priority. They're probably not paying money to get the right people. The [DOC] cuts corners whenever possible."
Because many of the state's prisons are in secluded areas, he says, the best doctors tend not to be there. And, Jones says, prisoners now must pay $4 to see a doctor. The result, he adds, is that the state saves money by discouraging inmates from seeking treatment.
The fee, says Debbie Buchanan, a DOC official familiar with medical policies, is $2-$3, and it's waived if an inmate is indigent or has an emergency. She also says that the fee is not a DOC policy, but a mandate from the state legislature.
Jones, whose class-action lawsuit against the state goes to trial Oct. 15, sees an even bigger problem: close management. Called segregated housing in some states, it means separating more "dangerous" criminals from the general population. Most of the state's 3,200 CM inmates remain alone in their cells 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for three showers and one hour of out-of-cell exercise a week, according to the lawsuit. Inmates can be in CM more than three years, and at FSP, indefinitely.
Unlike other states, where inmates are sent to CM for serious disciplinary problems, Jones says, Florida inmates can go simply for "nuisance" problems -- things such as having too many magazines or bars of soap. Florida's CM inmates, Jones says, are "predominately nonviolent."
That's contrary to the rules posted on the DOC's web site, however. "This status," the rule says, "is designed to house inmates who commit acts that threaten the safety of others, threaten the security of the institution or demonstrate an inability to live in the general population without abusing the rights and privileges of others."
CM inmates, the lawsuit continues, are subject to "unrelenting" heat, can't watch TV or listen to the radio and are denied any opportunity at bettering themselves through vocational or educational programs. They're not even allowed to attend religious services or check out more than one soft-back book from the prison library.
In other words, the state takes inmates and locks them alone in a cell for months on end, virtually devoid of any social interaction. And then they're released.
"I think we've gone too far," Jones says. "You don't need to be a bleeding-heart liberal to realize that that these people are coming out. I don't feel any safer."
Running a prison anywhere is certainly a tough task. And doing so in Florida, which activists consider among the three harshest states for prisoners (along with California and Texas), can be particularly troublesome. Guards and inmates do indeed come from different backgrounds. Mentally ill inmates are routinely mixed with the general population. Funding for health care and education is dismal, activists argue. The list of issues seems practically endless.
As Erik Bolog, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who advises prisons on legal issues, puts it: "You can't stop bad shit from happening, but you can stop angry facts from coming out of bad facts."
By "bad facts," Bolog is referring to unfortunate things that can happen in prisons, such as abuse by guards, for which prisons are liable. In court, however, "angry facts" occur when administrators try to cover up the problems, and that can sometimes mean expensive punitive damages. But part of the reason for cover-ups is the sheer economic power prisons hold.
In Florida towns such as Starke, which has two major prisons nearby, the entire economy revolves around prison life. Moreover, in the small towns, the prison employees all know each other. That, activists say, increases the chances for cover-ups. "The minute you start filing grievances of abuse," Crossley says, "you're gonna catch a lot of hell for it. You might end up dead. I know several who are dead."
On the other hand, the DOC's website is full of press releases recounting inmate attacks on guards. So the issue becomes how to protect the safety of both employees and prisoners.
A good idea, activists say, would be to attract more skilled people to the CO job. Currently, the state's only requirements to be a prison guard are a high-school diploma or GED and no felony convictions. After that, candidates must complete 500 hours (about three months) of training, primarily in the classroom. Murrell says it's the most training for COs anywhere in the country.
The pay, however, is pretty low: Salaries start at about $26,000, and there's not much of an upward climb until one reaches the administrative level. That's "not enough," Murrell says. "The officers are working with people who have already been known to kill. They're not choirboys."
But the DOC wants to cut costs. That's why most prisons are in rural areas: Land is cheaper, and labor is cheaper. The DOC, Rackleff says, can't compete in Miami. Neither can it jack up its standards, with the department constantly searching for new hires.
An increasingly popular idea, especially in the federal prison system, is the Supermax prison, which is similar to (though more severe than) Florida's CM facilities. In these, prisoners are locked in a cell 23 hours a day and get one hour for exercise. When Colorado built its 300-bed Supermax, [it] reduced violence 63 percent -- an incredible change, according to Metropolitan State College of Denver criminal-justice professor Paul Katsampes.
Still, Katsampes isn't totally convinced that Supermaxes are the way to go. If they are used, he says, they should be reserved only for the most vile, dangerous prisoners. He prefers direct supervision, in which there is one highly trained officer in the general population for every 50 inmates. "That," he says, "is the most professional level for jails. There's very little violence." Poorly run prisons, on the other hand, have one guard watching hundreds of inmates, which means no control, he says.
ChristopherJones has a simple suggestion that could answer most questions about whether abuse exists: Put video monitors everywhere. "That would put to rest debate in these incidents," he says. "It's not a routine thing in Florida prisons, [but] other states do it."
The DOC videotapes hallways and general-population areas, Rackleff says, but it's not cost-effective to tape individual cells. Still, Jones contends, there are enclaves where the cameras don't go -- and that's where inmates are abused.
The citizens' review board that Rep. Peterman plans to take up next session is not, by his own admission, the ultimate solution. Knowing the tough-on-crime stance of the state's top legislators and governor, he says it would be futile to ask for a board with real teeth.
"If nothing's going on," asks Peter Siegle of the Florida Justice Institute, "why would [correctional officers] be worried" about increased oversight?
They won't be, Murrell says, so long as the review board is "neutral." If, however, it's a "kangaroo court with an agenda," the Benevolent Association won't support it. Neither, most likely, will the legislature or Gov. Jeb Bush.
For the review-board bill to have a chance in Tallahassee next year, activists must show the public -- which is naturally inclined to believe COs, not inmates -- that there is a problem. And that, says Amnesty International's Lucey, is what the upcoming conference is all about.
"But we don't want it to end there," Lucey says. "We hope to find some people and organizations to help us write resolutions and find some brave, courageous legislators. There has to be an enunciation. This has to be the beginning."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.