All anyone really knows is inmate Timothy Thomas was very much alive on March 30 when he told an officer he didn’t want to go to breakfast — an act of defiance that would ultimately get him transferred to the confinement wing at Reception and Medical Center (RMC), a state prison in Lake Butler. What happened after that is a mystery, until April 2, when Thomas left confinement in a body bag, dead at age 43.
Thomas was one of at least 145 prisoners to die in Florida prisons so far this year, a shocking number even for a state with one of the highest rates of inmate mortality in the country. Florida prisons ' mortality rate has surpassed even Texas, which is not known for coddling convicts.
Thomas was serving a life sentence for armed robbery and was known to have some health problems. But a medical examination performed when Thomas was transferred to confinement that Friday in March confirmed he was healthy upon entry. And a housing log shows Thomas spent the rest of his life in administrative confinement — a part of the prison where he would have limited access to other inmates, and would have been under the watchful eye of guards at almost all times.
The cause of Thomas’ death is under official investigation, which often takes months if not years to conclude. So family members ordered their own autopsy, performed parallel to the medical examiner's report, whose results remain under wraps. Although the cause of death from the private autopsy has not yet been released, fresh bruises and lacerations on Thomas’ body visible in photos suggest he had recently been beaten.
Advocates from the Florida Justice League, a group dedicated to fighting for inmates’ rights and an advocate for Thomas’ family, claim chemical agents may have been used on him, despite his asthma, which would have exempted him from that treatment.
“Timothy Thomas was murdered,” said state Rep. Kimberly Daniels, who paid a surprise visit to RMC to investigate in the days following Thomas’ death. “All of these inmates were saying at one time that they killed somebody on Easter,” Daniels said.
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones responded in a statement: “We take these allegations very seriously, and have provided all available information to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, [which] has an active investigation into this death.”
The Miami Herald has reported on suspicious deaths in FDC facilities for years, including the infamous case of Darren Rainey, whose skin peeled from his body when he was locked for nearly two hours in a shower at Dade Correctional Institution, the deadliest prison in the state over the past five years. Often, however, reporting causes of suspicious deaths is difficult without footage from the cameras in the prisons.
The Department of Corrections has said it can't release surveillance video because it would compromise security.
In February, the Miami Herald won a lawsuit against the FDC for access to video footage from within prisons. The FDC appealed.
Current projections of inmate mortality, based on data from the past five years, suggest the death rate in 2018 could spike 29 percent from the total in 2017, previously the deadliest year on record by a large margin. Over the past decade, other states with large prison populations, including California and Texas, have seen decreasing inmate mortality rates as Florida’s maintained its already high level before spiking in recent years, according to the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In response to the alarming trend, the Bureau of Internal Audit of the Florida Department of Corrections initiated an investigation. The summary, released in February, listed drug overdoses, hangings, and sickness as some of the ways inmates died between 2015 and 2017. But it was careful to avoid concrete conclusions about the cause of the spike because of uncertainty created by still-open investigations — a huge backlog the FDC has faced criticism for in the past.
FDC spokeswoman Michelle Glady provided a litany of possible explanations for the increase: an aging inmate population with more serious healthcare needs, an epidemic of drug overdoses (especially from synthetic marijuana, which can cause seizures), an unhealthier population entering the system due to the rise in opioid addiction, under-serving healthcare providers, issues derived from short staffing, and the proliferation of gangs. Glady said the department isn’t waiting for investigations to conclude in order to act.
“The Office of Intelligence is using lots of different data and using the facts that we have early on to address this spike in fatalities,” she said, noting that preliminary data could be used to identify prisons with increased gang activity or drug use and take proactive action.
In the recent report, inspectors did note a significant increase in accidental deaths attributed to overdoses of synthetic marijuana, often the type called K2, and the department created a video on the dangers of K2 played for all inmates this year. Glady said that more generally the goal is “making sure that we have good health services in all of our facilities,” something the department has said was inadequate in the past.
The institution where Thomas died, RMC, is a hospital prison where many sick inmates from around the region are housed. It always has one of the highest numbers of deaths, most of which are categorized as natural, from sickness or age. But if the first quarter of 2018 is any indicator, RMC could see a 27 percent spike in deaths by the end of the year, and inmates who have been there say the standard of care remains poor.
“They give you aspirin, kick you in the ass, and tell you to go about your business,” said former inmate Vedero Byrd, who said he did four stints at RMC during his 18 years in the Florida prison system. He said he knows someone who has waited three years for a pair of glasses.
“We have a MERSA, scabies, lice, pneumonia, TB and flu outbreak,” an inmate at Florida Women’s Reception Center wrote to the Miami Herald in late March. She alleged some cancer patients weren’t receiving their medications. The FDC denied the allegations of a MRSA outbreak. The Miami Herald is withholding her name to shield her from reprisal.
In May 2017, a group of inmates filed a class-action lawsuit, still pending, against the FDC for failing to provide treatment to over 5,000 inmates with hepatitis C.
Glady acknowledged that the FDC had problems in the past with two private healthcare companies providing inadequate care for inmates. “Those contracts were terminated due to lack of performance,” she said. As of June 2017, Centurion of Florida took over as the sole provider of healthcare at Florida state prisons. And from 2016 to 2017 the FDC increased its healthcare budget. However, allegations of substandard conditions persist.
Byrd said from his experience, RMC was the worst, but not just because of the inadequate healthcare. The food is inedible, he said. But worse, he said, is the violence. K-Wing, the confinement wing of RMC where Thomas died, also has a particular reputation. “K Wing that is no place for anyone. They treat you like animals in there,” said Byrd. “K-Wing is where they mace you. They do a lot of stuff when you are in K-Wing.”
A terrifying lore surrounds K-Wing. Inmates said it's guarded by brutal officers with scary nicknames, caricatures of violent personalities whose faces no one seems to be able to describe, but many talk about.
“Everybody knows,” said former RMC inmate Randolph Brown. “They say, for black men like me with gold [teeth] in their mouth, the white man punch them out of your mouth. They keep a jar of them. That’s the story.”
Daniels, the state representative, said she heard the same thing and feared for her own safety when she toured the prison as a black woman with gold teeth. She said prison staff tried to intimidate her and her aide while they asked questions. “I couldn’t sleep for two days after I left that place,” Daniels said. “It’s a culture. That’s a city where the KKK lived. And they work in the prisons.”
Rumors aside, in 2015, two former RMC officers — David Elliot Moran, known as "Sarge," and Thomas Jordan Driver — Klansmen, were arrested after they told an FBI informant of their plans to kill a former inmate with whom they had problems while he was in prison. A third corrections officer, Charles Thomas Newcomb, also was arrested, and all three either pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial.
Daniels received disturbing letters from several RMC inmates begging for help in the days after her visit. One inmate wrote a request for an emergency investigation into "police brutality by prison guards and denial of medical care." Another wrote, "Since I been at this institution I have witnessed and at times [been] subjected to the misconduct, abuse and more extreme inappropriate behavior by staff." That was followed by another message by a different inmate: “Cruelty is common here.”
The chairman of the Florida Black Legislative Caucus, Rep. Bruce Antone, put out an internal memo on April 23, outlying an action plan to "address the concerns, hearsay and allegations of physical abuse of prisoners and youth juveniles housed at Florida's Public and/or Private Prisons or Youth Juvenile Detention Facilities.” Keith Harris of the Florida Justice League said the Black Caucus’ involvement means the FDC’s “day has come.”
“Inmates are being killed in their control, and they aren’t addressing it,” said Harris. But the more banal is also true: Be it from sickness, suicide, or overdose, more inmates than ever are dying in Florida prisons.