Five sergeants and a captain with the Florida Department of Corrections were arrested Thursday, charged with gassing an inmate, then beating and kicking him while he was handcuffed and shackled, and then lying about it.
Michael Crews, Florida corrections secretary, said in a news release that the arrests demonstrate his commitment to punishing staffers who break the law or violate department policy.
Crews’ department has been beset by allegations of brutality, and is the subject of several ongoing investigations involving suspicious deaths. The latest allegations involve a non-fatal beat-down administered Aug. 5 at the Northwest Florida Reception Center in Chipley.
The reception center, in Washington County in Florida’s Panhandle, has had four unresolved deaths in the past year, three of them under review by the department’s inspector general and a fourth under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The deaths are listed on an online database unveiled Wednesday as part of a departmental effort to be more transparent.
The staffers arrested Thursday were Sgt. William Finch, Sgt. James Perkins, Sgt. Robert Miller, Sgt. Christopher Christmas and Sgt. Dalton Riley, as well as Capt. James Kirkland, who allegedly ordered the beating after administering the gassing, the arrest affidavits state. They all face charges of felony battery, as well as official misconduct.
All six have been fired.
The arrests come a week after Crews pledged a crackdown on employees who break the law or department policy. He acknowledged that the department has not always meted out discipline fairly or adequately. In recent months, the department has been accused by watchdog and civil rights groups of human rights violations and widespread abuse of inmates.
The latest moves follow a series of stories in the Miami Herald that examined the suspicious deaths of inmates, as well as allegations of corruption, cover-ups and abuse by corrections officers and their supervisors.
“These arrests and terminations send a very clear message: we have zero tolerance for criminal activity by our staff,’’ Crews said in his written statement.
“I expect everyone to do what is right …and our staff should be held to the highest standards and those who fail to do the right thing will no longer work for this agency.’’
The inmate who was beaten, Jeremiah Tatum, was attacked by the guards as he was being escorted with his arms handcuffed behind his back and his legs shackled, the arrest affidavits said.
This followed a gassing with noxious chemicals administered by Kirkland, the affidavits said. The plan called for Kirkland to announce that Tatum had spit at him, and for the guards to use that as a pretext to get violent, the arrest reports said. The affidavits said surveillance video shows Tatum being slammed face-first into the concrete floor by Finch and Riley as Perkins jumped on the back of his legs. Miller grabbed his head and pinned it to the ground, the documents added.
Tatum, 31, is serving seven years for drug dealing. He is now housed at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution.
The case is unusual in that — according to interviews with several inmates — guards generally will not batter a prisoner in areas where cameras are present.
The arrests came the same week a disability rights group filed a lawsuit seeking a court injunction against Crews and the corrections department, alleging they have failed to address the rampant abuse of mentally ill inmates at Dade Correctional Institution, near Homestead.
Among other things, plaintiff Disability Rights Florida seeks an overhaul of the prison’s mental ward, including regular monitoring of its inmates. Inmates in the unit have complained of being sexually abused, beaten without provocation and going unfed by corrections officers.
Dade Correctional has also failed two audits, largely because of issues involving maintenance and sanitary condition, and, sources said, recently had an outbreak of scabies.
In recent months, the Herald has reported on a series of suspicious deaths, including one involving the use of chemical agents. Among those killed:
▪ Darren Rainey, 50, who allegedly was herded into a locked, brutally hot shower and left for at least 90 minutes by Dade Correctional guards upset that he had defecated in his cell. He collapsed and died during the shower in June 2012.
Inmates said the shower was used on several occasions to torment prisoners. For nearly two years, the Department of Corrections and Miami-Dade police, lead investigative agency on the case, failed to interview witnesses. Police did so only after the Herald reported on the unexplained death. No resolution has been announced, although the warden and assistant warden have since been fired.
▪ Randall Jordan-Aparo, who was gassed repeatedly by guards at Franklin Correctional Institution in the Panhandle. Jordan-Aparo, 27, irritated guards after complaining that he was sick and needed to go to the hospital. He had a chronic medical condition. No one was charged after a cursory investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The case was reopened after rebellious members of the inspector general’s office alleged that the probe had been botched.
The U.S. Justice Department is now investigating Jordan-Aparo’s death.