Violence in Florida’s state prisons continues to escalate as the use of force by corrections officers soared to an eight-year high in 2015-2016, newly released state figures show.
Use of force topped 7,300 incidents in the fiscal year ending June 30, the highest number of incidents since 2007-08. Inmate deaths in calendar year 2016 also rose slightly — from 354 to 366 — and remain at an all-time high. Murders and inmate-on-inmate assaults have more than doubled in the past six years, state records reveal.
Julie Jones, who took charge of the beleaguered prison system two years ago this month, said the proliferation of inmate gangs and the fact that nearly half of the state’s corrections officers have less than two years of experience contributed to the uptick in violence.
“I have inexperienced officers supervising inexperienced officers — plus a 41 percent increase in the gang population,” Jones said.
The department also continues to struggle with how to house a growing number of inmates with mental illness — and how to better train officers to deal with them.
“Mentally ill inmates receive more disciplinary reports, more use of force, more cell extractions and more mental health emergencies,” Jones said.
In the past decade and a half, the number of inmates with mental illness has risen 157 percent, she said. That spike has coincided with the closing of hospitals and other therapeutic facilities for the mentally ill.
The agency has been bitterly criticized by human rights groups and inmate families who allege that prisoners with mental illnesses are often abused, assaulted, neglected and even killed in the prison system.
The institutions with the most use-of-force cases are Union Correctional, Lake Correctional, Santa Rosa, Suwannee and Florida State Prison. With the exception of Florida State Prison, the other facilities all house units that treat inmates with mental illnesses.
In the case of one officer, she has to spend the day in the hospital while her husband, who has cancer, gets chemo, so she is up 24 hours, between work and taking care of her husband. Maria Kazouris, a labor attorney who represents corrections officers
“We are doing the best we can, but that certainly doesn’t give a mother with a child in the system great comfort,” Jones said.
“Uses of Force” are incidents that are mostly self-reported by the officers, and cover any time a corrections officer uses physical force or chemical agents to subdue an inmate deemed to be causing a disturbance or resisting a command.
Jones said chemicals — either pepper spray or tear gas — are not used as frequently as in the past, as the agency has instituted new policies on when they can be deployed. Prisoners with mental illnesses are not to be sprayed except to prevent harm to themselves or others, she said.
Staffing is still at critically low levels as the agency copes with how to retain officers who often leave after two years for better paying jobs. As a result of staff shortages, officers often face fatigue in dangerous situations or don’t have backup.
An independent audit of Florida’s prisons concluded that the state’s facilities are so “chronically understaffed” for even the most basic daily routines that an emergency should be declared to keep corrections officers and inmates safe.
Maria Kazouris, a labor attorney who represents corrections officers, says the guards at some prisons that are short staffed are not allowed to take vacation or sick time, even if their family members are ill. She estimated that officers can be forced to work as many as 96 hours in a two-week period. In some cases, this means officers are awake around the clock — between juggling their personal lives and their extra work hours.
“In the case of one officer, she has to spend the day in the hospital while her husband, who has cancer, gets chemo, so she is up 24 hours, between work and taking care of her husband,” Kazouris said.
The lack of staff costs the state millions in overtime costs.
Jones is requesting $40 million in next year’s budget to raise the base salaries of supervisors, give recruits signing bonuses and boost the pay of officers who work in one of the state’s 10 prison facilities that hold those with mental illnesses.
“One of the big factors with an officer dealing with an inmate is a lack of experience,” Jones said.
FDC has a long history of abuse, and some of it is never documented. There have been many confirmed cases where officers have lied on their reports to justify using force against an inmate.
As recently as December, two ranking officers were arrested at Lake Correctional Institution on charges that they beat an inmate who was handcuffed and in leg restraints, then lied on their use-of-force reports.
Records obtained by the Miami Herald in that case show that a corrections sergeant and a lieutenant pinned the handcuffed inmate in a chair in the prison’s infirmary and then, as one of them held the inmate’s head upright so he couldn’t turn away, a third officer punched him in the face over and over until he was bruised and bloody.
The arrest affidavits show that the officers then falsely reported that the inmate was the aggressor — stating that was why they resorted to using force in order to subdue him. In this case, the affidavit said that the officers’ criminal actions were recorded on audio and video. They have been arrested on charges of felony battery, culpable negligence and falsifying official reports.
Other similar cases investigated by the Herald over the past three years show that officers have claimed that they gassed or otherwise used force on inmates who spat on them, kicked them or “caused a disturbance,” when in fact, witnesses or video revealed, the prisoners did nothing to provoke the officers.
FDC’s 2015-16 inspector general report shows that nearly half of all physical contact with inmates was attributed to inmates using “physical resistance to a lawful command.”
The details of the recent arrests at Lake — and other abuses by officers behind the walls of Florida prisons — were not made public by the Florida Department of Corrections.
The agency censored arrest documents, blacking out nearly every detail of what happened, including: where the incident occurred, who was beaten, the injuries the inmate suffered and the fact that the alleged crime was recorded on audio and video.
The Herald was able to find out details of the incident thanks to documents provided by the state attorney’s office in Lake County, where the prison is located. The facility, in Clermont, is about 22 miles west of Orlando.
Florida’s Department of Corrections — third largest in the country — has 49 state-run prisons and seven private prisons that house just under 99,000 inmates. It is the state’s largest agency, with a budget of $3.4 billion.
Jones hopes to boost the budget by $140 million to help make the facilities more secure.
Last year, Florida was plagued by inmate uprisings at several prisons, and records show that staff shortages have led to serious security breaches. Officers have had to use rubber bullets to quell multiple riots which, so far, have not resulted in serious injuries.
Recent corrections officer arrests
Arrested Nov. 10: Adam Robert Gaddie and Remington Charles Walker were both charged with malicious battery on an inmate and falsifying official reports at Gulf Correctional Institution. According to the arrest affidavits, on April 19, 2016, the officers repeatedly sprayed chemical agents on an inmate who was handcuffed with his arms behind his back, kneeling, and who was not resisting any commands. They then allegedly lied on their reports, saying that the inmate instigated the use of force.
Arrested Dec. 8: Officers Steel B. Smith and Willie Porter were charged with malicious battery, culpable negligence and falsifying official public records. On Nov. 4, Smith, a sergeant, and Porter, a lieutenant, forced a handcuffed inmate at Lake Correctional Institution into a chair and held his head while they punched him repeatedly, according to the arrest affidavits. The inmate, who was also in leg restraints, offered no resistance and, according to video, did nothing to instigate the beating. The officers then lied on their reports.