State Politics

A fix-it Miami lawmaker goes into prisons, talks to inmates ... but avoids 1 question

Perimeter fence at Suwannee Correctional Institution in North Florida.
Perimeter fence at Suwannee Correctional Institution in North Florida. Courtesy of David Richardson

Standing in the center of a barren prison courtyard at Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell two weeks ago, encircled by towering razor wire and brick buildings, state Rep. David Richardson was on a mission.  

His legislative week hadn’t begun yet, so he had arrived for an unannounced visit to the youthful offender wing of the massive prison compound. Since August, the retired forensic auditor had learned that if he wanted to understand how inmates were treated in the state’s troubled corrections system, he had to find a place to conduct one-on-one interviews with offenders.

His conclusion: Find a very public space within the prison confines, out of earshot of corrections officers or prison staff, away from any recording equipment “and never ask what sent them to prison, unless it’s going to be your last question.” 

Over the past six months, Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who had never set foot in a prison, has quietly met with more than 120 inmates during more than 30 visits to 23 different corrections facilities in his quest to determine how to fix the ailing system.

 
 

Drawing on a 30-year career unraveling corporate corruption and financial malfeasance, and using a state law that allows legislators exclusive, and unannounced, access to any Florida prison, Richardson has attempted to find the truth behind the brutal “test of heart” hazing rituals used by prison gangs to extort money from young newcomers in return for protection.

He has learned how gangs at Lancaster Correctional Institution near Gainesville, often made up of members from the same regions of the state, would avoid corrections officers, create lookouts and decoys, and rely on poorly designed prison spaces to exploit blind spots and prey on their victims.

He uncovered what he considers “ground zero for officer-on-inmate violence” at Sumter Correctional Institution. He dug out details about how new arrivals were routinely “punched, or choked, or hit or slapped by an officer” as they arrived on the prison bus, validating reports that elements of the state’s prison culture were failing to police their own.

And he heard stories of “staged fights” in which an officer calls two inmates “into the bathroom where there is no camera ... punches them both and then writes a report saying they were fighting each other, claiming the officer had to stop it.”

Reporting his findings

Armed with these conclusions — and many questions — Richardson dutifully reported his observations to Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones and made several recommendations. To Richardson’s delight, Jones has not only listened, she used them to underscore changes she has also sought since she arrived a year ago as an industry outsider and the first woman to lead the agency.

“We’ve been very collegial and very open to everything he’s had to suggest,” Jones acknowledged last week, adding that Richardson was “very guarded” with his initial findings but soon developed an open rapport with her and her staff. “I think he thought we would circle our wagons, close up shop and somehow push back — and we have not.”

Jones responded to several of Richardson’s initial requests — closing a Lancaster dorm last October when he reported that it was infested with mold, moving a bruised inmate who spoke with him at his request and opening investigations on allegedly abusive guards.

Closing Lancaster’s youth wing

This month, she told him she had agreed to one of his top priorities: Jones will close the youthful offender wing of Lancaster Correctional Institution in June, and move the 662 inmates ages 18 to 24 to the privately run Lake City Correctional Institution or Sumter.

“My goal is to make change,” Richardson said. “I have seen a lot of improvement since I have been doing this work. I think the word is out that I’m going to be showing up, and I’m going to be interviewing inmates.”

As Jones was “just poking around the edges the last eight or nine months,” she said, Richardson has come in “no blinders on, eyes wide open, bull in a china shop.”

The odd-couple partnership has resulted in a host of unheralded but important changes. Jones, 58, who left retirement to head up the troubled state agency for a Republican governor, not only directed her staff to impose no delay or barrier to Richardson’s access to vulnerable programs within her agency, she also trusted his recommendations.

Richardson, 59, who was first elected to public office in 2012, never sought media attention or political gain as he quietly spent more than 300 hours (his calculation) inspecting, researching and reporting back his findings on the project to Jones, her staff, and his legislative colleagues. When he arrives unannounced at a prison, he gives FDC’s legislative affairs director a warning phone call — from the parking lot.

“He didn’t want the media to muck this up,” said Rep. Kathleen Peters, a St. Petersburg Republican who was among a handful of legislators who accompanied Richardson on some of his prison visits. Peters has embarked on her own project to investigate the state’s mental health hospitals and psychiatric facilities, and she went along with Richardson on about 12 prison visits to focus on mental health concerns.

“He’s not politicizing it,” Peters said. “He has worked to develop a relationship with the secretary, and he reports what he has found. What impresses me the most is how receptive and responsive she has been.”

Miami Herald report

After reading a Miami Herald story in September about the broomstick hazing of a 19-year-old inmate at Lancaster Correctional Institution, Richardson began to focus on the 3,724 inmates between the ages of 14 and 24 who are housed separately in dorms for youthful offenders.

According to a prison report on the Lancaster incident, Gesnerson Louisius was ambushed May 7, 2013, by other inmates in an isolated corner of an unlocked room far from the guard room. The beating lasted about 30 minutes, ending with him crouched on his knees “like a cat,” one witness told investigators, as the inmates tugged at his pants and began pushing a broomstick into his rectum.

The vicious act ruptured Louisius’ rectum and he underwent an emergency colostomy. His family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against FDC for condoning the ritualized beatings.

Richardson sought to learn more but also wanted to protect inmates from further harm. Rather than just go directly to the four prisons that house young inmates, he devised a strategy to tour other prisons to seek out offenders who had previously served at Lancaster and Sumter but were no longer there and would be more free to talk.

During the legislative committee weeks in Tallahassee last fall, Richardson would wedge in visits to North Florida prisons, often arranging an inspection in which he would ask staff to walk him to places he wanted to observe. Sometimes, he would ask for incident reports and data.

No advance warning

Each time, he would arrive with his legislative aide or another legislator to offer another set of ears to the inmate interviews. If neither are available, he will ask the department to send another official, not affiliated with the prison, to accompany him.

“I don’t mind going to a facility alone, but I will never do an interview one-on-one,” he said. “It was an evolution to figure out how to get information out of people.”

His research confirmed the initiation rituals are worst at Lancaster where large rooms, far from the guard stations, are perfect hideaways to avoid scrutiny for the “test of heart” beatings.

“The guards only have to make their rounds every 30 minutes, and they know they have 15 minutes of time that they can get in these back rooms,” Richardson told the Herald/Times. “They’ll use a lookout in the center area so they will know if a guard leaves a station, and they can alert people to shut down whatever activity they are doing.”

He confirmed broomstick beatings occurred at youthful offender dorms at Sumter Correctional. Now on every visit he asks staff to unlock the broom closet in the dorms, where he inspects the inventory list and makes sure all is intact.

Richardson has concluded that no amount of staffing or video surveillance will ever make Lancaster safe to youthful offenders.

“It has everything to do with the physical layout,” Richardson said. The prison is incompatible, he said, because it’s not only a very large campus with massive oak trees that serve as shields for inmate-on-inmate fistfights, it has 24 cottage-style inmate buildings, each arranged in a T-shape with long corridors and poor sight lines.

Richardson commends Jones for being willing to close Lancaster but he believes that Sumter Correctional has a similarly bad configuration — “a hellhole,” he says — while the two other prisons that house the state’s youthful offender population — Lake City and Lowell — have far fewer problems.

He reached that conclusion after hearing many inmates tell him they live in terror each night, sleeping in unlocked cells desperate to protect themselves from being cut or pummeled — usually by socks loaded with padlocks or bars of soap.

“In the dorm-style settings, they sleep with a towel wrapped around their face so they won’t be cut,” Richardson said, noting that it doesn’t always succeed. “I’ve had so many of them show me the scars on their heads and faces from the cuts.”

Reports of abusive guards

He has also chronicled injuries inflicted by prison staff. During a visit to Sumter on Dec. 4, Richardson and his aide talked with 11 inmates, all 14 to 17 years old.

“Almost all of them told me they had been punched, or choked or hit or slapped by an officer, and this would have been within the last six months,” Richardson recalled. Most of the abuse was occurring while still on a bus or van “to send a message,‘We’re in charge here,’ ” he said.

On a surprise visit to Sumter two weeks ago, Richardson and Peters talked to seven inmates, none of whom reported being choked, slapped or beaten, they said.

“It’s very clear to me the officer-on-inmate violence has been reduced and that they know someone’s going to be showing up and looking for bruises on someone’s face and asking the tough questions,” Richardson said.

Richardson’s review has also led to a long list of recommendations. He asked Jones to implement a pilot program to install body cameras on officers to reduce the likelihood of officer-on-inmate violence. He supports Jones’ call for hundreds of new hires to fill staff vacancies and end 12-hour shifts. He says the only locks that should be allowed are those that are attached to inmate lockers. And, if necessary, he believes the agency should stop issuing socks until they stop being used as weapons. 

Jones has listened to all of Richardson’s ideas, but she is not ready to close Sumter.

“I support what the representative is doing, and we don’t always agree on everything,” she said.

Instead, she has changed Sumter’s wardens, fired some staff and is investigating others. She has promised to install 240 more cameras and has agreed to Richardson’s request for a pilot program to put body cameras on all corrections officers in the youthful offender wing. But Richardson’s call for housing all young inmates in two-person cells is unrealistic, she said. “We just don’t have the money to do that.”

Meanwhile, Richardson calls this the “first phase” of his prison investigation project.

“I’m taking names,” Richardson says of officers he believes should be investigated. “I don’t want them just fired. My goal is to have them arrested and prosecuted.” 

First time behind bars

It’s a long way from where Richardson began when he decided to tour the South Florida Reception Center in Doral on Aug. 6. He had never before stepped into a prison and he remembers, “I wore no neck tie.” A psychiatrist friend had told him he had heard that wearing a tie might make him vulnerable to being yanked by an unruly felon.

Instead, Richardson said, the experience has been without incident and “very positive.” One of his biggest surprises was learning the state houses more than 150 inmates ages 14-17 in adult prisons and, by law, must keep them separated, but the state has little to no strategy in place to keep them from returning to the prison system again.

“I ask them: ‘Do you know how much it costs to keep you here?’ ” he said. When they shrug off the question he tells them at $25,000 a year the cost of housing a 20-year-old for the next 40 years is $1 million. “I tell them, ‘If I could find 1,000 people like you and keep you from returning, that’s $1 billion and 2,000 people like you is $2 billion.”

Jones is working with the Department of Juvenile Justice to determine if it they can better assess the needs of their youngest inmates and with the Department of Education to develop new programming. By the end of the year, she said she will have in place a pilot program to offer computer tablets to inmates in one adult prison and one youthful offender facility to be used for educational programming, video conferencing with families and to modify behavior.

“What we have found, talking to other states and researching this, the disciplinary reviews of inmates have gone down in 60 percent of the states that have tablets,” she said.

Jones also believes it will help improve how officers manage their interactions with inmates. “If we could put incentives in the hands of an officer to control an inmate, they don’t have to revert back to this negative behavior, either,” she said.

Jones has another goal: Return to the reason younger offenders were supposed to be segregated from the adult population in the first place — to protect them and to give them extra attention and programming.

“We weren’t doing that,” she said. “A reduction in our staffing, a cut in our programming and we lost sight of the ball. We are now turning that back around to focus on what youthful offender programs are supposed to be about.”

Jones took over in January 2015 at the request of Gov. Rick Scott at a time when the agency was wracked with allegations of widespread inmate abuse, investigative cover-ups, a malfunctioning healthcare system, deep budget deficits and deteriorating facilities. She had been retired after five years at the helm of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and had no previous prison management experience.

“I think I was very honest with you last January when I said I don’t know why I’m here except the governor asked me to do it — don’t know anything about it,” Jones said. “Fourteen months later, truly it’s a labor of love. I drank the Kool-Aid.”

Jones said she is “tickled with Rep. Richardson” and his attention to the agency.

“There’s nothing wrong with fresh eyes, which is kind of what I’ve brought to this department,” she said.

She said she’s “given him carte blanche to poke around” but is also “doing the best we can to also educate him about the things that he’s not seeing behind the scenes, too.” That list includes making many of the same changes Richardson is recommending, she said.

Richardson said he is pleased with the pace of change but he does wonder why the agency with its elaborate grievance process and multilayer inspector general’s office couldn’t connect the dots on the problems the way he has.

“I recognize I’ve got 30 years of audit experience. I know how to ask smart questions, and I know how to get to the truth, but why couldn’t somebody who’s trained in this look at this and say this is wrong?” he said. “There’s no good answer, but this is all moving in the right direction.”

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

About David Richardson

▪ Born in Houston, and moved to Florida in 1968.

▪ He attended Longwood Lyman High School and the University of Central Florida, where he received a degree in biology in 1979 and a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 1983.

▪  Hired by the U.S. Department of Defense in Tampa as an auditor and received his Master of Business in Administration from the University of Tampa in 1987. He worked for Ernst & Young as an accountant before starting his own advisory services firm in 1993.

▪ Elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2012 and 2014.

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