Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Prison scandal awakens ugly memories

“Purple Jesus,” the guards dubbed it, for the color of the aerosol canisters they employed with such sadistic delight.

Military grade tear gas was how former inmate Marshall Ashworth characterized the chemical agents. Or maybe it should have been called Orange Jesus. He described how prisoners who had been doused with the stuff emerged from their cells, gasping, moaning, stunned and wobbly, their skin and clothes stained that freaky shade of orange.

During his 22-month stretch at at Gulf Correctional Institution Annex in the panhandle town of Wewahitchka, Ashworth, a minimum security prisoner, worked as an orderly, assigned to the clean-up crew in “confinement,” the special block where the prisoners deemed hard cases are kept in 24-hour lockdown.

“It was my job to clean up the cells after they gassed somebody,” Ashworth said. “It happened almost every night.”

Ashworth, 50, with a record of petty crimes and drug related offenses, was sentenced in 2006 after he was busted in St. Petersburg on charges involving cocaine and possession of stolen property. He wanted me to know that the brutal treatments associated with the very suspicious deaths of inmates Randall Jordan-Aparo at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010 and Darren Rainey at Dade Correctional in 2012 were hardly isolated to those two Florida prisons.

Rainey’s body had been found after the mentally ill prisoner was subjected to a scalding torrent while locked in a shower closet. But Ashworth said it was the death of Jordan-Aparo that awoke nightmarish memories of his stint at Gulf Correctional.

The 27-year-old Jordan-Aparo, who irritated his guards with incessant demands for medical attention, had been sprayed with so much tear gas that after his body was removed, it left an outline in the orange residue coating the surfaces of his prison cell.

Florida Department of Correction regulations clearly prohibit use of chemical agents as a punitive device. Gas can only be employed, after repeated warnings, to prevent “injuries to staff and inmates including any self-injurious behavior exhibited by inmates” and to quell “dangerous and disruptive behavior.”

“I never saw it used for control issues,” Ashworth told me. “It was punishment every time. If an inmate pissed a guard off, disrespected him, they’d gas him.”

He described other cruelties, including withholding food, that he witnessed during his time as an orderly on the 20-cell confinement pod, where the prison’s more troublesome inmates were consigned sometimes for weeks at a time with none of the usual inmate privileges – no books, no cigarettes, no canteen, no phone calls. “Nothing but a room, two bunks, four walls and your own thoughts.”

Gassings, he said, were orchestrated events on the confinement ward. He said guards would gather their gas canisters and erect a video camera on a tripod outside the target’s cell. When the camera was switched on, he said, guards, in a theatrical ruse, acted as if they were spontaneously reacting to a sudden disturbance, shouting warnings to an unwitting inmate inside the cell, who was actually being punished for an earlier offense. When the camera was switched off, he said the guards would revert to their normal demeanor, often taunting the gasping, moaning prisoner.

Ashworth’s credibility, of course, must be weighed against his criminal record. But his account of punitive acts at Gulf Correction tracks closely with evidence introduced in a federal lawsuit filed by the Florida Institutional Legal Services Project, which sued FDOC for “unjustified or excessive use of chemical agents.”

The legal services case involved mentally ill inmates in the state penitentiary system who were frequently gassed for behavior that pretty well defines mental illness – banging on the doors or yelling from inside their locked cells. The lawsuit described the same selective, misleading use of videotaping Ashworth said he saw at Gulf Correctional.

Mentally disturbed, ranting prisoners would be gassed, extracted from their cells, treated in a mental ward, then returned to their regular prison cells. Once back in the cellbock, they invariably decompensated and were gassed again. The cycle was repeated so often, that this particular subset of inmates became known in the prison system as “frequent fliers,” said Kristen Lentz, managing attorney for Florida Institutional Legal Services.

Lentz and her partners (including the law firm Holland & Knight) prevailed in 2009 but the U.S. district judge limited his finding to just two of the 22 inmate plaintiffs in the lawsuit -- one of whom had already died in prison. The judge did not order DOC to institute new limits on the use of gas.

Perversely, the torturous use of chemical agents by prison guards represents something of an improvement in the treatment of inmates. Guards have refrained from using beat-downs to extract unruly prisoners from their cells since the 1999 fatal pummeling of Frank Valdez, a 36-year-old convicted murderer, at the Florida State Prison in Starke.

Just two days before Valdez was killed, the Herald received a letter from another inmate on the same cellblock as Valdez. “The sounds of prisoners screaming in pain and of bodies being beaten keep the inmates on the entire wing up all night,'' inmate Mike Lambrix wrote. “I can hear the officers forcibly take inmates from their cells. The wretched sound of fists and boots striking flesh are unmistakable, as is the sound of some kind of weapon (a stick or a broom handle?) being used. They scream. They whimper. Then there is silence.

“Somebody needs to get the Feds in here, to stop this before someone gets killed,” warned Lambrix, who

now reside at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford.

It was the uproar over the Valdez fatal beating (10 guards faced criminal charges but all were either acquitted or charges were dropped.), that led to this prodigious use of tear gas instead of physical force, Lentz noted dryly.

In this latest scandal over inmate deaths, 32 guards have been dismissed at four Florida prisons. Marshall Ashworth, who now lives in North Carolina, offered a kind of backhanded defense for their cruel ways. He said the very culture of the Florida corrections system pressures guards to participate in the sadistic treatment of prisoners. “If a guard didn’t go along with this, they wouldn’t make it in the system. Guards told me that they didn’t like this stuff, but they had no choice.”

The ex-inmate said, “It won’t do any good to fire 32 low-level guys.” Ashworth said that the ranking officers shape the brutal culture inside Florida prisons. “None of them were fired.”