Florida Prisons

A guard allegedly beat a Florida inmate. The victim happened to be a lawmaker’s ex in-law

Dianne Hart would like to think that Tuesday’s arrest of a corrections officer who brutalized a Florida inmate — an inmate who just happened to be Hart’s former brother-in-law — had nothing to do with her status as a state representative who has crusaded on behalf of prison reform.

But she knows the families she talks to, who tell her they have seen their imprisoned loved ones beaten and abused with no such outcome, may be skeptical.

The alleged attacker of Carlton Hart will be dismissed, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

The confrontation happened on July 18 at Central Florida Reception Center near Orlando. According to an arrest affidavit, corrections officer Jestyn Allen, 33, wanted to subdue Carlton Hart and initially used a chemical agent to do so. That wasn’t effective, so he grabbed Hart’s torso and did a leg sweep, banging the inmate’s head against the ground, the affidavit said. Another inmate who witnessed the events said Allen also threw punches at Hart, which the officer didn’t note in his incident report on what happened as required.

Hart’s jaw was broken and had to be wired shut for six weeks, the state representative said.

At 51, Carlton Hart was not a newcomer to the prison system, having entered in 2008 for a charge of drug possession and being a felon with a weapon. He’d had a number of previous arrests. He is set to be released in 2022. He’s now at South Florida Reception Center and has physically recovered, the representative said.

Allen was arrested on charges of malicious battery and perjury related to the attack, she said. Rep. Hart said Allen had been employed with the Department of Corrections for nine years.

“I was very happy to know [Jestyn Allen] won’t be able to do this to anybody else in the system,” she said.

Dianne Hart is a Florida state representative who has worked on behalf of prison reform.

Violence in the Florida prison system is nothing new to inmates, their relatives, employees and lawmakers who watch over the mammoth enterprise. Using eyeglasses rigged with a camera, an inmate at Martin Correctional Institution filmed hundreds of hours of footage that captured prison at its rawest and most violent, including inmate fights, sometimes with homemade shanks or locks tied to belts as weapons.

Recently, officers at Lake Correctional Institution were clandestinely recorded beating a prisoner. The cellphone that captured the scene had been smuggled in. The officers were later arrested after the footage was posted online and news articles were published. And in August, Cheryl Weimar, an inmate at Lowell Correctional Institution, was beaten and left paralyzed by four guards. In the wake of that episode, Hart went to the prison and spoke out against the violence. It was one of 37 prisons she’s visited since her time in office, she said.

Since her election in 2018, Hart, a Democrat from Hillsborough County, has become one of the most prominent prison reform advocates in the Florida House.

Hart was interested in criminal justice reform long before her ex in-law was beaten, she said. Constituents who have been to prison would tell her stories about the violence they faced inside.

In a prepared statement, FDC Secretary Mark Inch said: “The results of this investigation serve as a testament to our commitment to accountability and the processes in place to identify, investigate, and arrest those who violate the law and our standards of professional conduct. The unacceptable actions of this individual are in no way a representation of the thousands of correctional officers who selflessly serve our state with respect and integrity daily.”

For the 2020 session, Dianne Hart has filed a bill proposing establishment of a Florida Department of Corrections citizen oversight committee as well as a bill that would ease restrictions on inmates earning gain time, she said.

“All eyes are on all facilities,” she said. “They need to stop with the brutal treatment.”