Miami-Dade County

Lawsuit blames Florida prison system for inmate’s death

Matthew Walker
Matthew Walker Florida Department of Corrections

Exactly two years to the day that inmate Matthew Walker was killed by officers at Charlotte Correctional Institution, a wrongful death lawsuit was filed on Monday against the state, alleging that the Florida prison system and its private health care company were responsible for Walker’s death.

Walker, 46, was killed April 11, 2014 during a clash with officers, who had roused him in the middle of the night to order him to pick up a cup and a magazine he left out in his cell.

Last year, a Charlotte County grand jury said it was clear that the confrontation with the 6-2, 250-pound Walker was brought on by commanders at the Punta Gorda prison, who authorized a policy of waking prisoners, simply to "harass and aggravate them." When the prisoners inevitably became agitated, the officers were ready to punish them by forcing them into confinement — separated from the prison population —and if they resisted, the inmates would be gassed and restrained.

In Walker’s case, evidence showed that when the inmate refused to comply, the officers successfully restrained him, but continued to beat him with radios and stomp on his head with their boots until his throat was crushed and he couldn’t breathe.

Afterward, the officers claimed that Walker continued to struggle and ignore commands, and all of them denied that they punched, kicked or struck him with their radios. However, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigated the death, concluded that physical evidence and testimony showed that Walker was struck by corrections officers "numerous times."

His death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. However, the grand jury concluded that while the death was the result of gross failures on the part of prison staff, there was not enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the corrections officers. The grand jury noted that the prison staff failed to properly contain the crime scene and collect evidence.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Charlotte County, alleges that after the beating, officers covered up the crime, then let Walker die as they tended to fellow officers who had minor injuries. It took more than 45 minutes for prison officials and nurses employed by the prison’s private health care contractor, Wexford, to call 911 for Walker, the suit contends.

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The grand jury also found that Walker, who was serving a life sentence for burglary and robbery, may have survived had there not been a delay in treating him.

Walker’s sister, Mae Atkins of Clewiston, as personal representative of her brother’s estate, contends that the officers used excessive force and were deliberately indifferent to her brother in violation of the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The family, represented by Tallahassee attorneys Amber N. Hall and James V. Cook, is suing the Florida Department of Corrections, the former warden, Thomas Reid, 13 corrections officers, as well as Wexford Health Sources, Inc., and a handful of nurses and doctors.

The suit notes that the prison had a history of violence against inmates and that the prison system has had a record number of inmate deaths over the past two years.

“The Florida Department of Corrections knew that use of excessive force, inmate harassment, and/or excessive violence against inmates was occurring and correctional officers were culpable in inmate deaths,’’ the suit says.

The FDC does not comment on pending litigation. The Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching a Wexford spokeswoman for comment.

Following the grand jury report last year, FDC Secretary Julie Jones said the cell searches conducted at the prison were not condoned by the agency, which immediately ceased them.

Although nine officers involved in the beating death were fired, all but one was rehired.

Reid, the warden, was given the Secretary’s Leadership Award last year, and in January, Reid was promoted to regional director for institutions for Region 4, which oversees Charlotte Correctional and eight other institutions, primarily in the southern portion of the state.

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