Florida Prisons

Whistleblower prison guard paid the price for reporting abuse

Prison custom holds that guards should keep their mouths shut when inmates are brutalized.
Prison custom holds that guards should keep their mouths shut when inmates are brutalized.

Kelly Bradley crouched in the corner of his cell, cowering under a blanket, as five officers clad in riot gear barreled inside and jumped on him, pinning him face-down.

As they cuffed Bradley’s wrists and ankles, one of the officers, William Hamilton Wilson, reached toward Bradley’s face and dug his index finger into the inmate’s eye — several times —until he ripped out Bradley’s right eyeball. It happened swiftly, almost as if it was routine.

Afterward, the extraction team at Charlotte Correctional Institution was summoned to the commander’s office. Capt. Scott Anderson, a 23-year veteran of the Florida Department of Corrections, asked the officers what happened.

No one saw anything. No one heard anything. No one could explain how Bradley’s eyeball ended up on his cheek, dangling by a thread.

Anderson later testified he didn’t think there was anything odd about it. He told the officers to write up only what they individually did, leaving out the injury, then ordered the cell cleaned up to make room for the next inmate. The officers’ gloves were discarded, and the gear was washed of blood.

The brutal encounter, focal point of a civil lawsuit settled by the DOC last month, was eerily similar to another cell extraction at Charlotte in 2014, except that it ended in the death of an inmate, Matthew Walker. Last week, a Charlotte County grand jury said there wasn’t enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the officers involved in Walker’s fatal beating, largely because the officers discarded the evidence and — as in the Bradley case — told their bosses that they had no idea how Walker’s larynx was crushed or how his head was bashed with such force that there were imprints in his skull.

Bradley’s case likely would have ended similarly — with no one knowing what happened and no one arrested — had it not been for one officer, John Pisciotta.

Pisciotta, then 34 and with 31/2 years on the job, was part of the extraction team that morning in May 2008 when Bradley, who suffered from schizophrenia, barricaded himself in by placing his mattress up against the door of his cell in Charlotte’s psych ward.

“This inmate was cowering under a blanket in the corner of his cell,” Pisciotta recalled in an interview this week. “He was an older man, very frail and mentally ill. He wasn’t trying to fight anybody. He was just scared. He was no threat to anyone.”

He saw everything that happened, and wrestled with what to do.

“I knew that it was morally wrong. They wanted us to prepare statements and not say anything. I told them I just couldn’t go along with it,” said Pisciotta, 41.

Pisciotta told the truth, and Wilson was arrested. After testifying against Wilson, Pisciotta was fired and lost almost everything: his home, his friends, his pension and his career.

“I knew once I did the right thing, and I stepped forward...my career would be over,” Pisciotta told a jury during Wilson’s 2009 federal criminal trial. “It’s something you don’t do. You don’t go against other officers. Because my life has been a living hell ever since.’’

Wilson, now 32, the only person criminally charged, was convicted of civil rights violations, served five years in federal prison and was released in December. Other than Pisciotta, no one came forward; no one else was disciplined. Six other officers were involved in the episode and four of them, including Anderson, were promoted. Two are still at Charlotte.

Bradley, 54, who was serving a six-year sentence for burglary and grand theft, was fitted with a prosthetic eye and released in 2009.

Pisciotta said after the trial Bradley’s mother called him to thank him.

“I just couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t tell the truth,” Pisciotta said.

Staff solidarity

“We Never Walk Alone” is an unofficial oath that Florida corrections officers have followed for decades, a mantra printed on signs in every state prison.

The words refer to the tight bond among corrections officers, men and women charged with keeping order among some of the most evil and lawless people in society.

To some, however those words are an unspoken code of loyalty that cloak more sinister — and sometimes criminal — acts. The average corrections officer lives every day with the absolute fear of speaking up, said Ron McAndrew, a former warden.

“There are a lot of good and decent people who work for the Department of Corrections. But there are also some people who intimidate them and prevent them from speaking the truth — even when a man’s life is at stake,” said McAndrew, who worked in the Florida prison system for 25 years.

McAndrew knows first-hand the consequences a whistleblower can face. In 1979, after McAndrew reported the beating of an inmate at Dade Correctional, his Doberman was poisoned. “It took six months for her to die,’’ recalled McAndrew, now a prison consultant.

Pisciotta’s $135,000 out-of-court settlement — and the full details of what happened to him — came to light this month, just days after a Charlotte County grand jury released a scathing report in connection with Walker’s death at Charlotte, located in Punta Gorda, north of Fort Myers.

Walker, who was serving a life sentence for burglary and robbery, died after his throat was crushed during a melee involving a team of at least five officers. Inmates told investigators that the officers beat Walker after he mouthed off and then slapped one of them — a female officer who had roused him out of his bunk after midnight, demanding he get up to put away a cup he had left out.

Pisciotta said he recognized some of the names of the officers involved in the Walker case. They were the “go-to guys” who commanders encouraged, promoted and rewarded for their loyalty and brutality.

“You are taught that you are God there, and the good ol’ boys, they are the ones they went to when they wanted things done because they kept their mouth shut, they all came up with the same stories, wrote the same reports and nobody knew anything. Nothing has changed,” Pisciotta said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigated Walker’s death, found that the officers’ versions of events changed over time, were riddled with “inconsistencies” and didn’t match the physical evidence. Still, there were no witnesses — other than inmates — willing to point the finger at the guards. FDLE said that amounted to a lack of evidence.

Nearly every officer involved in the incident remains employed by the department. Although nine were fired last year, all but one of them won their jobs back.

In April — one year after Walker’s death — prisons Secretary Julie Jones gave Charlotte Warden Tom Reid the “Secretary’s Leadership Award,” which recognizes a warden who “consistently exemplifies the department’s values.”

Department spokesman McKinley Lewis provided a list of the prison’s accomplishments under Reid, including extensive programs to help rehabilitate and reintegrate inmates back into society.

“It is only fair, when discussing an institution, to give credit to those who devote their time to go above and beyond to ensure the rehabilitation and betterment of our state’s inmates,” Lewis said.

Reid, who began his career at Charlotte, rose to the rank of major during his first 10 years with the agency. He was assistant warden of operations at Charlotte in May 2008, and was promoted six months later to warden at Martin Correctional Institution before taking the helm of Charlotte in 2012. On Friday, it was announced that Reid would take over as warden at Suwannee Correctional Institution, another Florida prison that has been under scrutiny for a series of suspicious beatings and deaths. The FBI is looking at several of the cases.

Jones, Lewis said, remains committed to overhauling the prison system. Since she was appointed secretary in January, she has initiated a number of reforms aimed at sending a message that retaliation will not be tolerated.

McAndrew, who has stayed in touch with many of his FDOC co-workers, said he is hearing good things about the changes.

“It’s not like they like her, but she has their respect and their attention,” he said.

Pisciotta’s attorney, Bill Amlong of Fort Lauderdale, said Jones may be making cosmetic changes, but until she shakes things up at the top, the abuse will continue.

“Generally, corporate culture does not start at the loading docks and seep up,” he said. “For this stuff to be going on, there must be a tolerance for it at the top that seeps down. I’m not exactly sure how you break that.”

Honor and pride

Pisciotta grew up in Long Island, N.Y., joined the U.S. Navy when he was 18, and served four years, two of them overseas. While in the Navy, he met and wed his wife, Nicole, to whom he has been married for 20 years. They have three children.

They lived in Connecticut and other places around the country before settling in Southwest Florida. He loved being a corrections officer.

“You get to help people every day. It was a sense of honor and pride, back then,” Pisciotta said.

In the moments before Bradley’s cell extraction, Pisciotta was so concerned about Wilson’s aggressive behavior that he asked his bosses not to let Wilson participate. Anderson told him Wilson would do fine.

“He was a big boy and he took care of what they wanted taken care of. He was part of the good ol’ boy crew that did things the way they wanted,” Pisciotta said of Wilson. “Unfortunately, I was part of the good ol’ boy crew that day.”

Pisciotta testified during Wilson’s trial that after breaching the cell, all the officers jumped on Bradley and had already subdued him, in handcuffs and leg restraints, when Wilson began “digging and digging” into Bradley’s eye.

Pisciotta said he shouted to Wilson to let him know that Bradley was restrained, but by then it was too late.

Horrified, but worried that the inmate would come to further harm if he told doctors and nurses what happened, Pisciotta whispered to Bradley to tell medical staff that he had gouged out his own eye. Later, at the hospital, and away from the guards, Bradley told the nurses what had actually happened.

After the incident, Pisciotta and the other officers gathered in a room at the prison to take off their bloody gloves and riot gear. Pisciotta said he was angry at Wilson for putting his fellow officers in jeopardy.

“I told him that I wasn’t going along with it,” Pisciotta said.

He said Wilson responded with a racial slur.

“C’mon, he’s just a f---ing n-----, whatta you care?” Wilson said, according to Pisciotta’s testimony.

“He thought it was funny,” Pisciotta said.

Anderson called all the officers into his office and instructed them not to mention the inmate’s injury in their reports, Pisciotta testified. Everyone — including Pisciotta — initially, did what they were told. Only one of the eight officers involved, a lieutenant who filled out his report in another room, noted Bradley’s injury. According to Pisciotta’s testimony, Anderson looked at Pisciotta, who was visibly upset, and said, “Are you OK? You’re making us all nervous here.”

On the same day that he gave a taped statement to an investigator with the DOC Inspector General’s Office, the harassment began, Pisciotta said.

It started with officers shunning him, then turned into threats and intimidation, according to his civil court complaint. A union representative warned him: “It’s going to be rough for you now.”

On June 6, 2008, Wilson was arrested on charges of aggravated battery. Wilson’s arrest affidavit — which described Pisciotta’s role as a witness — was sent to the email accounts of 19 different officers. Two weeks later, “Coward’’ was sprayed in black across the side of Pisciotta’s home. His car’s fender was damaged and its transmission wires were cut.

On April 1, 2009, Wilson was indicted, and his case was removed from the state attorney’s jurisdiction and reclassified by the FBI as a federal civil rights case. Wilson, who was fired after the arrest, contacted several of his fellow officers during the course of the federal probe, phone records show, but later denied in court that he tried in any way to influence their testimony.

The officers who testified said they couldn’t remember what the conversations were about. They also testified they didn’t see how Bradley lost his eye.

Thirteen days after the indictment, a corrections officer at Charlotte with whom Pisciotta had a brief affair called Reid, the assistant warden. The corrections officer, who had Reid’s cell phone number and knew him from when they worked together at another prison, left a frantic message for Reid to call her back.

Reid would later tell an investigator that the officer, Brandy Lindsay, told him a “rambling” and “emotional” story about how she had witnessed Pisciotta assaulting an inmate during a transport earlier that day. Pisciotta was placed on administrative leave.

Pisciotta complained to the Florida Commission on Human Relations, which investigates the complaints of whistleblowers who feel they were retaliated against. It found that the allegation against Pisciotta was false and that he was set up by his fellow officers.

Nonetheless, Pisciotta was fired by the department — hours after Wilson was sentenced, according to his lawyer.

Pisciotta and his wife sold everything they owned — their home and their vehicles — and cashed in his retirement. They moved to Vermont, where he accepted a job with the state prison system.

Still haunted by his experience in Florida, he recently resigned to go into farming.

None of the other officers involved in the extraction, either as active participants or supervisors, were disciplined, except for Wilson. Anderson, the captain, was promoted to colonel and is now at Okeechobee Correctional Institution.

Lt. James Nordstrom resigned Nov. 8, 2008; Lt. Michael Riley was promoted to captain before resigning in 2013. He remains as one of the leaders of Teamsters 2011, the union representing the department’s corrections officers.

Officer Ernest Hoopes resigned in November 2008. Officer Stephen Lekawa was promoted to sergeant and remains at Charlotte. Officer Jeffery Koslowski was promoted to sergeant, then lieutenant. He’s now a captain at Charlotte.

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