Florida Prisons

Mother seeks answers 3 weeks after son’s alleged beating at Florida prison

Carolyn Dawson, 63, holds a photo of her son, Shurick Lewis, that was taken in 1974 when he was a month old. Her son has spent the last 24 years in prison on drug charges. Dawson was recently informed that her son was allegedly beaten by three corrections officers but she has not been allowed to see or contact him.
Carolyn Dawson, 63, holds a photo of her son, Shurick Lewis, that was taken in 1974 when he was a month old. Her son has spent the last 24 years in prison on drug charges. Dawson was recently informed that her son was allegedly beaten by three corrections officers but she has not been allowed to see or contact him. Ben Twingley

It has been three weeks since Shurick Lewis was beaten at Columbia Correctional Institution, allegedly by three officers who kicked him and left him bloodied and bruised on the floor of his cell for the next shift to clean up.

One day after the Feb. 12 incident, the Florida Department of Corrections issued a single paragraph news release announcing that the inmate’s injuries were serious but not life threatening, and that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was investigating.

FDOC suspended three corrections officers. And in short order, Columbia’s warden, Monroe Barnes, was forced to retire.

But there was one person the agency never called, even to provide the most basic of information: Lewis’ ailing 63-year-old mother, who as of Wednesday still did not know whether her son was OK.

“I don’t know where he is, what condition he is in or what happened,” his distraught mother, Carolyn Dawson, told a Miami Herald reporter who first informed her last week that her son had been injured.

“I was told he was hit upside the head, that he had contusions. Even if the injuries are non-life threatening, I don’t know what that means. He could have brain damage for all I know.”

The incident report, released by FDOC, is almost entirely redacted, further frustrating Dawson, who recently underwent triple bypass surgery and has high blood pressure.

“All they will tell me is that it’s under investigation — that’s it. I don’t know whether he is dead or alive.”

FDLE officials will not comment on the probe, since it is ongoing.

Several prison sources, however, have told the Herald that the officers’ statements about what happened didn’t jibe with the nature of the inmate’s injuries. FDLE collected the officers’ boots to examine them for possible blood stains.

Late Wednesday, FDOC spokesman McKinley Lewis issued a statement in response to the Herald’s article.

“The secretary is reviewing the department’s policies to ensure that all possible accommodations are made to inmates’ families,” Lewis said in the statement.

Columbia, in Lake City in central Florida, has a history of troubles and of violence. The incidents date back to 2012, when 24-year-old correctional officer Ruben Thomas was stabbed and killed by an inmate armed with a handmade weapon.

Since then, guns and other contraband have continued to flow into the compound. Over the past several years, one inmate was strangled, two were shot and several have killed themselves or overdosed on drugs. A captain was fired last year for failing to report criminal activity. Inmates have filed numerous federal lawsuits alleging that corrections officers routinely solicit violent inmates to harm other inmates who don’t go along with the system, one they say often involves gangs and officers involved in lucrative drug and tobacco smuggling.

In January, inmate Myong Sun Ji was found dead after he alleged he had been threatened by staff who had been harassing him and encouraging inmates to “get him.” According to inmates and their family members, corrections officers looked up Ji’s conviction on the computer, then announced to the prison populace that the five-foot-five-inch, 170-pound killer was a convicted sex offender. However, Ji was not a convicted sex offender.

Ji, 49, was arrested in Broward County in 1998 and charged with killing his 13-year-old niece with a crowbar during an argument with his sister. Family members at the time said his sister knew that Ji was mentally unstable and violent but that she prevented doctors from involuntarily committing him for mental treatment.

He was convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated assault and aggravated child abuse. He was not accused of any sex crime.

Two Columbia inmates, whose names are being withheld by the Herald, assert that Ji had been tortured because the guards taunted him for being a sex offender. The inmates have written letters to their families, and to FDLE, which is investigating Ji’s death.

Both inmates say they believe Ji was “murdered,” but they fear that they will be retaliated against by officers if they tell authorities what they saw and heard.

Too often, families say, they never find out how or why their loved ones are harmed or died. Some of them may never learn what happened to their son, husband, daughter or father.

The prison system isn’t required — and is in fact prevented in many cases by law — to give them any health information.

Medical information is often never released unless the inmate signs a waiver giving their families access to their records. Prison officials rarely tell inmates this, advocates say.

Inmates who die in custody are also afforded the same protection, and families who want medical records have to go to court to obtain legal jurisdiction over the inmate’s estate.

“Prisons are very isolated, insular institutions. A lot of bad things can happen, and it’s difficult to get the word out,” said Peter Sleasman, an attorney with Florida Institutional Legal Services, which advocates for inmates with disabilities.

The three officers who were suspended from Columbia in connection with Lewis’ alleged beating are Adam Matthew Ault, 23; Christopher Jernigan, 37, a former U.S. Marine; and Donald Sims Jr., 41.

Shurick’s record shows he has been incarcerated since 1991 and was serving 33 years in prison. He had been convicted of aggravated assault and burglary, as well as aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer in Miami-Dade County in 1994.

During his 24 years, he has racked up 80 disciplinary actions, most of them nonviolent.

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