Step out of line at the Miami-Dade juvenile lockup and you just might get a beating, dished out by an enforcer, orchestrated by members of the staff, and rewarded by a treat from the officer vending machines.
The beatings were known as "honey bunnings," and the culture they spawned was codified in secret language and gestures known only to officers and their charges.
The brutal system flourished and festered until one of those assaults, by a mob of a dozen youths, turned deadly — and a federal grand jury said enough.
On Monday, detention officer Antwan Lenard Johnson was arrested by federal agents as he arrived for work, charged with violating the civil rights of 17-year-old Elord Revolte. Elord was ambushed in August 2015 by more than a dozen other detainees shortly after he mouthed off to Johnson in the lockup's cafeteria. He died of his injuries a day later.
The indictment, which was announced by federal prosecutors Monday morning, also charges Johnson with one count of conspiracy in the death of Elord on Aug. 31, 2015, just a few days after he was incarcerated for robbery. The savage beating occurred in Module 9 at the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center, a lockup with a long, sad history of officer misconduct.
Johnson, 35, was picked up by federal agents as he prepared to go to work at the detention center at 3300 NW 27th Ave. in Miami. He is facing a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
"The United States Constitution protects every person in this country, including those who are detained in juvenile detention facilities," newly minted U.S. Attorney Benjamin G. Greenberg said at an afternoon news conference. Greenberg called Johnson a member of a "small minority of law enforcement individuals who tarnish their badges by violating the civil rights of others by using unreasonable force and violence."
"Officer Johnson had a duty to protect these individuals, but, with deadly consequences, Officer Johnson did exactly the opposite of what he had a duty to do," Greenberg said. "Johnson encouraged and induced these detainees to assault [Elord], so that Johnson was obeyed in his authority, not challenged."
At a brief first appearance Monday afternoon, prosecutors asked U.S. Magistrate Patrick White to set bail for Johnson at $250,000. Johnson's attorney for the hearing, Thomas Risavy, declined to speak with reporters after the hearing.
The eight-page indictment alleges that Johnson, and "other persons known and unknown to the grand jury," conspired to "injure,...threaten and intimidate" Elord by provoking other youths in the lockup to assault him. And the indictment says Johnson was not the only officer who was turning juveniles into violent goons.
"As commonly utilized by other juvenile detention officers at [the Miami lockup], Antwan Lenard Johnson operated a bounty system in order to help ensure obedience and officer respect," the indictment says. "By and through this bounty system, Johnson caused, encouraged and induced juvenile detainees, in exchange for rewards and privileges, to forcibly assault" Elord.
Elord's beating and death were explored at length in a six-part Miami Herald series, called Fight Club, that was published last October.
The series detailed how lockup officers and youth workers from across the state were using honey buns and other treats as rewards to detainees who were willing to dispense discipline on behalf of workers. In interviews with the Herald, Department of Juvenile Justice administrators said the agency condemns the practice, but denied they were aware it was occurring.
DJJ Secretary Christina K. Daly said Monday that administrators at her agency cooperated fully not only with federal prosecutors, but also with Miami police and the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, which did not charge Johnson, or any others, in Elord's death. "As with any investigation or court proceeding, DJJ will continue to assist in any way we can in a transparent and forthcoming manner," Daly said.
"The Department of Juvenile Justice's primary focus is to ensure the safety and security of all youth in our care, and our entire staff was saddened by the very sudden and untimely death of Elord Revolte," Daly said in her prepared statement.
"It is our expectation that any staff who jeopardize the safety of youth be held fully accountable for their actions, including criminal prosecution. The behavior detailed in the indictment is appalling and inexcusable. In response to today’s findings, the department is taking immediate action to terminate this employee," Daly added.
Monday's indictment said Johnson used "coded language, such as 'off my face' and non-verbal gestures, including 'nods,' to signal that he wanted the juveniles to attack [Elord]." After dinner that evening, Johnson asked Elord's assailants to "delay" the punishment until the group returned to their module, or sleeping quarters, so that Johnson could hide in a supply closet and act like he wasn't there when the assault began, prosecutors said.
The officer also ensured that the juveniles who participated in the ambush were given "rewards and privileges" for the beating. Only moments after Elord was taken to an infirmary following the beating, Johnson allowed his attackers to watch television outside of their cells, Greenberg said, and made sure they were given extra snacks.
"Various juveniles agreed, including in words and gestures, to forcibly assault" Elord at Johnson's urging, the indictment says. Johnson's behavior, the charging document says, also caused Elord to be so afraid for his immediate safety that he stood apart from other detainees after returning from dinner that night.
Johnson "bumped fists together with the juvenile who initiated the attack" in celebration, the indictment says.
In his remarks Monday afternoon, Greenberg, Miami's top prosecutor, said youths in the lockup were aware that officers were deputizing kids to do their dirty work, and that they could either cooperate with the beatings or risk becoming a target. The mercenary system was successful in keeping difficult kids in line.
"This bounty system incentivized fear and violence. And if inmates refused to participate, they knew they could become a target of a bounty, or otherwise be harmed, in the future," Greenberg said.
"In light of their familiarity with the bounty system, juveniles knew they would not be punished or disciplined for carrying out this brutal assault. In fact," he added, "they knew they'd be rewarded."
"The bounty system worked exactly as planned," Greenberg said.
Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.