They ambushed Gesnerson Louisius in an isolated corner of A-Dormitory, in an unlocked concrete-block room at Lancaster Correctional Institution, one of four state prisons in Florida where crime wears a young face.
It was May 7, 2013, and Louisius, 19, a new inmate, was slammed in the back of his head with a bar of soap stuffed inside a sock. Six inmates pinned him down, and one grabbed him by his throat, as two others dragged him across the carpeted floor by his ankles, according to the department’s report on the attack.
The young prisoners, between the ages of 18 and 20, kept demanding that he pay them money to stop the beating, but Louisius refused. He tried in vain to wrestle his way out of the heap of inmates, who locked him in a chokehold and began to kick and beat him with more socks stuffed with soap.
“That’s OK. I have something for you,’’ said one inmate, identified by Louisius in the Florida Department of Corrections report as Robert A. Walker, a 20-year-old convicted rapist.
“Get the broom,’’ Walker said, according to the prison report. What happened next was crueler and more unforgiving than the crime that sent Louisius to prison.
Louisius wasn’t the only inmate that day, that year or that month, to suffer a beating by gang members in Florida’s youthful offender prisons. The extortion ritual is so common and well known by both inmates and corrections officers that it has a name.
It’s called a “test of heart.”
Louisius’ beating lasted about 30 minutes. But it was the final five to 10 minutes that almost killed him. Louisius was crouched on his knees “like a cat,’’ one witness told investigators, as the inmates tugged at his pants. Hakiem Blount, 18, grabbed a broom and began pushing it into Louisius rectum, according to court documents. Blount later said he had to bounce on the broom several times to make it go as far up as he could push it, the prison report said. Finally, they gave up, leaving Louisius, bloody and almost unconscious, on the floor.
There were no video cameras in the room, and the one corrections officer assigned to the dorm that afternoon was inexplicably nowhere to be found.
Hours later, with blood still gushing from his wound, Louisius was placed in a DOC vehicle and transported 40 minutes east to UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville. It’s not clear why an ambulance wasn’t called. By then, Louisius had lost a lot of blood. His rectum was ruptured and he underwent an emergency colostomy, according to his attorneys, Michael Sasso of Orlando and Michael Beltran of Tampa.
Documents obtained by the Miami Herald reveal that the attacks, also referred to as “TOH,” have resulted in more than a dozen beatings and sexual assaults by inmates at Lancaster — as well as other youthful offender prisons — since 2010. Far more of the beatings go unreported, mentioned in passing in other prison reports, where young offenders say matter-of-factly that they have either paid the gangs off or suffered through the assaults and gained the respect — and protection — of the thugs responsible.
Sasso said his client served out the rest of his three-year prison term while wearing a colostomy bag, and had five or six surgeries in prison that likely cost Florida taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in June 2014 against the prison’s warden, three ranking officers and the guard who admitted he left his post that day, Louisius claims that the fights are part of a ritual that has been condoned by the agency. The suit says the DOC has allowed the gangs to extort and beat inmates for years.
“There isn’t any doubt that they could have killed him. This wasn’t a fistfight, and it wasn’t the first attack that day, or that month. They were impaling people. It’s like something out of the Middle Ages,’’ Sasso said.
The Herald asked the department to provide any memos, plans of action or directives to staff at its youthful offender facilities to show that the agency has a strategy for ending the “test of heart” extortion and beatings.
DOC spokesman McKinley Lewis said no written communications exist, but that the agency did close the A-Dorm where Louisius’ attack happened.
He also issued this prepared statement:
“Ensuring the safety and security of the individuals in our care is the Department’s primary mission. In recent years, the Department has taken great strides to improve the programming and supervision of our youthful offenders. At this time, the Department is engaged in active litigation regarding an incident which occurred at Lancaster C.I. and is unable to comment further on the details of this incident, or others like it. Any incident which occurs in our facilities is taken seriously, appropriately reported and investigated by the proper authorities.”
Four months, 316 dismissals
Florida charges more juveniles as adults than any other state in the nation, according to a recent study by Human Rights Watch. Florida’s youthful offender facilities house inmates up to 24 years old who committed crimes before their 21st birthday — sometimes well before — and are serving sentences of 10 years or less.
The state has 1,869 youthful offenders, nearly half of them at Lake City Correctional Facility, the only one that is privately run under a contract with the state. The other three are operated and staffed by the Department of Corrections. Lancaster, which has a work camp, is the largest. The others include Sumter and a youthful offender dorm at Lowell Correctional Institution for young female offenders.
Inmates are greeted, almost from the day they arrive, with the harshest realities of Florida’s abusive prison system. Over the past year, since the Herald began investigating the state’s prisons, the DOC has fired, and other agencies have arrested, dozens of corrections officers — including a number at Lancaster — for beating inmates and then lying on official reports to cover up their wrongdoing.
Since May 8, 2015, the department has dismissed 316 employees for cause, Lewis said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has brought lawsuits against jails in Florida for their treatment of young inmates, maintains that the state’s youthful offender facilities have inadequate supervision and too few programs to rehabilitate and educate inmates — and keep them occupied and out of trouble.
“It’s boredom and boredom results in violence,’’ said Miriam Haskell, an SPLC attorney. “The conditions are generally abhorrent. Kids need programming and schooling — and not to be held in isolation and other conditions of confinement.’’
Haskell is representing an inmate who says he was attacked and sodomized with a mop handle at Sumter Correctional Institution in July 2013. Though it happened at a prison nearly 100 miles south of Lancaster, the “TOH” he described was executed similarly to the one at Lancaster.
“What really made me start to look at it was that every single kid I met within the Department of Corrections had either been a victim or witnessed a “test of heart.” I believe the guards are complicit, and even encourage this type of behavior by deliberately leaving the broom and mop closets open and letting it happen,’’ Haskell said.
Haskell’s client — she will identify him only by his initials, R.W. — was 17 when he was initiated at Sumter.
According to the report of the investigation by the DOC’s inspector general, R.W. said he was asleep in F-Dorm and got up to go to the bathroom that morning when he was jumped. The inmates who confronted him told him that if he didn’t pay to live in the dorm, he would have to prove he could stand on his own and fight one of them in a “test of heart.”
He agreed to fight one of them, but other inmates joined the fray. Another inmate choked him until he passed out, the DOC’s report said.
When he regained consciousness, he had been slashed across his body and his pants were wet. His throat hurt and he remembered that one inmate used a piece of a fence to cut him. Though he couldn’t recall if he had been penetrated, he presumed he had been raped because, he told investigators, he knew of others put through the same kind of attacks at the prison.
Initially, he kept quiet about it. Everyone told him he had passed the “test of heart’’ and that no one would be bothering him anymore. But the following day, when an officer confronted him about visible wounds, he finally told what happened.
“The reality is the choice for ‘feed or fight’ in the form of paying up is a false one because many if not most of the kids are indigent, so the notion they can pay for their safety over the course of months or years is unlikely,’’ Haskell said.
Brutalizing and lying about it
At Lancaster, in particular, the assaults go beyond inmate-on-inmate violence. In the past 18 to 20 months, nine Lancaster officers have been criminally charged in separate investigations, all either relating to battery on an inmate or illegal compensation through the smuggling of contraband into the institution, the Department of Corrections said Friday.
In the past, prisoners at Lancaster have been subjected by guards to strenuous military-like treatment, and in 2010 one nearly died while performing rigorous calisthenics on the sand and in the hot sun, without being given adequate water. Two Lancaster officers were arrested after they forced the inmate, upon his arrival at the facility, to do drills in the heat, then deprived him of water and refused to render medical assistance as he began vomiting and collapsed. They then lied about what happened.
Last September, five Lancaster officers were arrested on charges of battering inmates. Two of them, both sergeants, were found guilty in January of repeatedly kicking an inmate in the head with their boots. They were sentenced to a year’s probation.
On Oct.9, 2014, Yalex Tirado, 20, died after being placed in confinement — a more restrictive form of incarceration — at Lancaster. Neither the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigated the death, nor the Department of Corrections has provided any details about what happened to him.
Karen Garcia, a parent of a current inmate at Lancaster, said her son was friends with Tirado. Her son told her that prior to his death, Tirado was beaten by a group of inmates, who broke his ribs with a broom handle.
“It’s disgusting. Where are the guards when a 20-year-old was getting beat and died?’’ she said. “I have no comfort level that my son is going to be OK.’’
William P. Cervone, the state attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, which covers Lancaster, is reviewing the Tirado case.
Though he declined to talk about specific cases, Cervone said the “general DOC situation” has gotten a lot of media attention, which sometimes leads the public to paint the agency “with too broad a brush.’’
“Proving prison cases is not easy,’’ Cervone said. “We have allegations ranging from incredible inmate testimony to contrived correctional officer testimony, and that is a problem.’’
‘Hurry up! Me Next!’
“I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t think that I would be beat like that,’’ said Louisius, who was released last year.
The Herald, which normally doesn’t identify victims of sexual assaults, is doing so in this story with the permission of Louisius, who hopes that his speaking out about what happened might result in something being done to stop the ritual.
Louisius still finds it difficult to talk about it, and is concerned that gang members who have been or will be released from prison may try to retaliate against him. In the lawsuit, he asserts that the state attorney, Cervone, has failed to aggressively pursue those responsible.
First elected in 2000, Cervone said he is satisfied that he is rigorously handling Louisius’ case.
Two defendants have yet to be formally charged. The warrants for those two suspects, signed two years ago this month, have not been executed. He could not say why the warrants haven’t been served, or whether the suspects are still in prison or have been released.
“I can’t tell you why the warrants haven’t been served. That process is carried out by other agencies, not mine,’’ Cervone said, explaining that usually a local sheriff’s office is assigned to serve warrants.
He declined to name the two defendants or discuss “test of heart’’ — which he said he knows about — or to condemn what has happened, saying he wants to preserve his “neutrality’’ as a prosecutor.
Blount, the only suspect charged so far, was in court Thursday on charges of sexual battery by force likely to cause death or serious bodily injury, tampering with a witness and false imprisonment. His case was continued until next month.
Others not directly involved in the beating but suspected by DOC investigators of orchestrating it have never been charged. Inspectors said they ultimately didn’t find enough evidence to charge Walker, who is scheduled to be released from prison next year.
Despite his history of violence, Walker was assigned at Lancaster to a position as a peer facilitator in charge of training new inmates, according to Louisius’ lawsuit. When he was just 14, Walker and five other youths grabbed a 42-year-old Palm Beach County woman and, according to news reports, Walker raped the woman as the other youths stood by shouting, “Hurry up!” and “Me next!” Walker, who attacked the woman as she arrived home, admitted he had sex with her, but claimed it was consensual.
He was sentenced in 2010 to eight years in prison. Louisius’ lawsuit says that during Walker’s time in the Palm Beach County Jail, he was disciplined seven times for misbehavior, including multiple inmate assaults, fighting and refusing to obey orders.
Fear of retaliation
Louisius, a first-time offender, said he had been in trouble only once before the crime that sent him to Lancaster. As a juvenile growing up in Orlando, he was charged with petty theft after he was caught with a stolen credit card. But when he was arrested again in 2012, it was far more serious.
He was the driver, waiting nervously in his mother’s Honda SUV, during a botched burglary. According to incident reports, his startled teenage accomplices, caught in the act of breaking in, scampered away from the house empty-handed, and Louisius drove off without them, not knowing that one of his cohorts tossed a gun in the bushes just as sheriff’s deputies arrived.
Confronted by deputies a few days later, Louisius admitted he drove the car, but insisted he did not know that one of them had a gun.
Louisius and three others, including his 14-year-old brother, were convicted of armed burglary. Louisius pleaded guilty as part of deal in which he would serve three years in a youthful offender facility. The other three received sentences ranging from three to 10 years. All of them were sent to Lancaster.
Louisius’ mother, Jinette, said she never had trouble with her son growing up, and after he was arrested, he had hopes of leaving prison with a GED and eventually going to college.
After the attack, however, he suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He is now in the Orange County jail, awaiting arraignment following his recent arrest in connection with a domestic dispute with his girlfriend.
Although his legal team freely shared his court records with Louisius’ permission, Louisius declined to elaborate further during a visit with a reporter at the jail a week ago because of a lack of privacy in the jail visitation area.
Guard’s view: ‘play fighting’
Haskell said the most disturbing part of her client’s attack at Sumter was a video that showed the officer on duty that morning looking directly into the shower as the inmates were beating and raping her client. The agency does not release prison video, saying that doing so poses a security threat.
But the footage is vividly described in the DOC inspector general report, which states the officer that morning, Bruce Kiser, is seen stepping out of the officers’ station and standing directly in front of the shower as inmates were walking in and out of the shower, some of them laughing.
“Kiser steps out of the officer’s station and appears to be talking to some inmates,’’ the report said. “Again, the door to the officer’s station is directly in front of the bathroom/shower area. The activity [that] can be seen in the video in the upper left part of the screen is still continuing while the officer is standing in front of the shower.’’
Kiser, who remains employed by the agency, later told DOC investigators that he didn’t see anything except for inmates cleaning and “play fighting” on the floor in the dorm, not in the shower.
The DOC report said that Dan Marshall, a representative for Brad King, the state attorney for Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, declined to prosecute the case, citing inconsistent statements by the victim and his “failure to cooperate with the investigation,’’ coupled with the lack of physical evidence and “the fact that officer Kiser indicated he saw nothing occur in the dormitory that morning.’’
Neither Kiser nor anyone else was disciplined by the department as a result of the incident.
After reporting what happened, R.W. was placed in confinement. Haskell said he wasn’t allowed any recreation, was deprived of schooling and isolated from the rest of the prison population for 90 days. He pleaded with staff not to transfer him to another youthful offender facility, fearing he would have to suffer another “test of heart.”
And that’s exactly what happened, when he transferred to Lancaster a few months later, Haskell said.
“He did endure another beating, a ‘test of heart,’ at Lancaster at the hands of other kids,’’ Haskell said. “He is still incarcerated and he is still in fear of physical violence like all kids in the Department of Corrections.’’
The choice: ‘feed or fight’
Complaints and cases reviewed by the Herald detail how the extortion scheme works. Those who pay the gangs are considered “jizzle’’ or “bitches,’’ and often have to continue paying the extortion for the length of their sentence.
Inmate Joshua Brown, in a sworn statement, told DOC investigators that on the first day he arrived at Lancaster, April 29, 2013, he was approached by the same inmates who attacked Louisius.
“The term they used was ‘feed or fight,’’’ Brown said, explaining that he chose to pay them from his prison account rather than fight.
He said he bought them two picture books, baby powder, some paper supplies and a bar of Dial soap. For the most part, they kept collecting money and left him alone, he said.
Another inmate, Timothy Petrey, told DOC investigators that after Louisius was assaulted, Blount tried to force him to take the rap for Louisius’ rape.
“He said ‘Petrey, Petrey, we need you to take the charge. If you don’t take the charge we are going to f--- you up, you are going to get a Buck 50.’’’
The DOC investigator asked Petrey what “a Buck 50” meant.
“A Buck 50 is when you take a razor and you cut me on the cheek to my ear. And you get 150 stitches all up on the side of my cheek,’’ Petrey said.
Sasso said it’s sort of like giving an inmate a face like the Joker in the Batman movie.
“If you don’t pay, they are going to rape you or you get a buck fifty. If you piss off the guards, they are going to beat you, too,’’ Sasso said. “It’s completely inhumane.’’
Louisius’ lawsuit, filed against Lancaster’s then-warden, Shannon Varnes, three commanders and an officer, alleges that the staff’s “deliberate indifference’’ to inmate safety pervaded every level of management, and that the agency itself, by its failure to adequately investigate and prevent the attacks, perpetuated a culture of cruel and unusual punishment.
According to the officers’ sworn depositions, all of them knew that Lancaster was dangerously understaffed, and several of them claimed that everyone, including the warden, knew that the violent assaults were taking place, that predatory inmates remained on the compound and that TOH attacks had been rampant.
The officer in charge of the dorm that day, Dwayne Chauncey, had left the dorm unsupervised to visit a female corrections officer with whom he was romantically involved, according to the lawsuit. Chauncey told DOC investigators that he was visiting the classification office. His employment evaluations were all exemplary. He is no longer employed by the DOC.
Chauncey’s boss, Sgt. Thomas Mathis, had a history of “tolerating or allowing" the inmate assaults, the lawsuit states. Several evaluations from a captain alleged that Mathis’ monitoring of his dorms was grossly inadequate. Mathis also said in a sworn deposition that he routinely falsified the housing unit logs by signing blank forms at the beginning of the shift and failing to verify the day’s events at the end of his shift, the lawsuit states.
Both Mathis and his supervisor, Capt. Paul Schauble, remain officers in the youthful offender facilities. The colonel, Daniel Hopkins, who is also named in the lawsuit, is now an assistant warden and Varnes remains a warden, but is now at Taylor Correctional Institution.
When Sasso gave notice that he intended to sue on Louisius’ behalf, the Department of Corrections sent him a letter threatening to file a counterclaim forcing Louisius to repay the state for the cost of his incarceration — at a rate of $50 a day, as the law allows. They have not yet filed such a claim.
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones appointed a new warden to Lancaster in January. Gustavo Mazorra, a Miami native, made news in 2010 when he became entangled in a love affair with a subordinate, a corrections officer at Marion Correctional Institution. The female subordinate committed suicide by taking an overdose of antidepressants, according to a report in the Tampa Bay Times.
Mazorra later became warden at Lowell, the women’s prison in Ocala. But he was transferred to Lancaster in January amid a scandal involving Lowell’s assistant warden, Marty Martinez, who was dismissed for conduct unbecoming an officer. According to an investigative report by the DOC’s inspector general, an assortment of Lowell staffers and inmates alleged that Martinez was having inappropriate relations with inmates, some of whom referred to him as “Daddy.’’ Martinez has denied that he conducted any improper relationships with Lowell inmates.
The department said Friday that Mazorra had retired 11 days earlier, on Sept. 4. Assistant Warden Michael Tomlinson is acting as warden at Lancaster, the agency said.
To read more on the Miami Herald’s investigation on prisons go to http://pubsys.miamiherald.com/static/media/projects/2015/cruel-and-unusual/
Additional DOC response
The Department of Corrections maintains that there are adequate programs to keep young inmates busy in their prisons. In a three-page memo supplied to the Herald, the department detailed counseling and chaplaincy programs to help modify behavior and cultivate respect for authority as well as substance abuse and anger management programs, among dozens of other counseling opportunities to prepare them to re-enter society.
The department also offers GED prep and other educational programs.
Of the 639 inmates at Lancaster, 86 are enrolled in vocational or trade programs, ranging from automotive to computer classes.
At Sumter, which has 226 youthful inmates, 52 are enrolled in the two vocational programs the state offers there: masonry and landscape management.
Attacks at Lancaster Correctional
May 19, 2010: A gang of three inmates beats another inmate with a broom and their fists. An officer stops the attack.
Aug. 17, 2010: An inmate assigned to sweep the hallway attacks a passing vocational instructor with a broom.
Sept. 10, 2010: Several inmates are found fighting in a hallway. When the officer follows them into the dorm, he finds another two inmates beating a fellow inmate with a broom and a lock.
Sept. 22, 2010: An inmate assigned to sweep the sidewalk throws the broom at a corrections officer, then charges him.
Oct. 2, 2010: One inmate beats another inmate with a broom even after the sergeant and guard demand that he stop.
June-July 2011: An inmate claims he was sodomized during a gang attack in K-Dormitory. One of the inmates, brandishing a broom, punches the victim in his jaw, knocking him unconscious. When he awakens, his boxers are pulled down to his knees and he is bleeding from his buttocks.
July 22, 2011: Two inmates attack a third inmate, holding him in a headlock and beating him with a broom handle. The officer who witnessed the incident inexplicably resigns and refuses to cooperate in the probe.
Sept. 19, 2011: A gang of inmates attacks a youthful offender in the dish room, beating him with pots, pans and a broomstick. The report notes that DOC investigators failed to report the incident to the state attorney because, the report notes, the state attorney “routinely declines batteries.’’
Aug. 30, 2012: An inmate reports that he was jumped in A-Dormitory by nine other inmates. Three of them held him down, while one of them sodomized him with a broom handle, he says.
Feb. 21, 2013: A gang of at least three inmates attacks an inmate in the R-Dormitory shower. The gang tells the inmate “It’s time for your test of a--,’’ then pulls down his boxers, presses the broom against his buttocks and attempts to sodomize him. The victim manages to free himself. The dorm is not equipped with cameras, and the DOC fails to process the scene. The case was closed without any action.
Aug. 9, 2013: An inmate is threatened by members of a gang known as “Sevens,’’ who try to extort him. The inmate reports the threats and is placed in protective management, but he is released the next day, at which time he is sodomized with a broomstick by two gang members. The report notes that another sexual assault happened the same day.
Sept. 1, 2014: An inmate who refused to pay “rent” to gang members is slashed across his face while sleeping. The officer who had abandoned his post at the time of the attack begins to kick and punch the victim, warning him not to report the attack.
Sources: DOC inspector general reports, legal complaints