Over the past decade, Lt. Walter Gielow has been named in more reports of use of force against inmates than any other officer working for the Florida Department of Corrections.
With a record of 179 reports since 2003, Gielow — and fellow officer Patrick Germain, with 172 reports — have helped make Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, in the state’s Panhandle, number three in the state in frequency of use of force against inmates, behind Union Correctional and Charlotte.
In the recently completed fiscal year, state corrections officers logged 7,300 use-of-force cases, nearly 1,000 more than the previous year, according to the department's data. Use-of-force cases have roughly doubled since 2008.
And these are only the cases that are reported by the officers and the prisons. Many others never get documented.
These numbers prompted Michael Crews, secretary of the Department of Corrections, to announce this week that he is ordering an independent audit of the agency’s procedures and policies involving the use of force against inmates.
“Use of force’’ is a broad term. It covers any time a corrections officer uses physical force or certain chemical agents to subdue an inmate deemed to be causing a disturbance or resisting a lawful command. Officers are sometimes named as subjects, sometimes as participants.
Corrections officials know that a significant number of force applications never get reported, said Ron McAndrew, former warden at Florida State Prison.
“There were many times at Florida State Prison where I would come upon situations where I encountered an inmate who had two black eyes, a bloody mouth, and bruises up and down his body,” he said. “I would ask him what happened and he said he fell off his bunk. Well, he didn’t get injuries like that from falling off his bunk.He was too afraid to tell me that he was beaten by the officers.”
The Miami Herald has requested detailed records involving the 10 corrections officers who have accumulated the most use-of-force reports over the past 10 years.
The documents are public records, and the Department of Corrections has said it will provide them — for a fee of $7,819.15. That covers the cost of 365 hours — nine weeks-plus — of staff time to review and prepare the documents.
Crews said in a written statement that he is committed to transparency. He recently completed a statewide tour of all 49 prisons during which he met with staff and issued a stern warning that excessive force will not be tolerated, the department has said.
The Association of State Corrections Administrators will conduct the audit through visits to the state’s prisons, inspections and other evaluations, according to a corrections department news release.
In a letter to the association's leadership, Crews stated that the department’s annual report, completed in recent weeks, showed another increase in use of force reports over the previous year. But the department also noted that use-of-force numbers dropped over the past three months, a time when the Herald and other news media have been scrutinizing questionable inmate deaths.
“During the summer months of 2014 [June-August], use-of-force incidents decreased 16 percent where, historically, use-of-force incidents have climbed during these months,” said McKinley Lewis, a department spokesman.
McAndrews, now a prison consultant, predicted that one area where the department will be found deficient will be in the way it disciplines — or fails to discipline — officers who use excessive force.
Crews recently fired 32 officers, most of whom were under investigation in connection with alleged abuse — sometimes fatal abuse — of inmates.
“What Crews is doing, especially if he files charges of assault and battery against those officers, is a giant step in the right direction,” McAndrews said. “It’s sending a message to the criminals that are wearing corrections officer uniforms.”