Florida Prisons

4 guards charged in attack on Florida prisoner

Daniel Lucante
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Four corrections officers face battery charges after they were accused of choking and beating an inmate in a racially charged attack in the barbershop of one of Florida’s most notoriously harsh prisons, the Department of Corrections acknowledged Wednesday.

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The officers, who are all white, allegedly ordered inmate Jessie Knight, who is black, into the barbershop at the Northwest Florida Reception Center in Chipley, placing him in the chair and then wrapping a smock tightly around his neck. According to court affidavits, Knight told investigators two years ago that the officers kicked and punched him at the same time, shouting “Let’s beat this n----- and teach him a lesson.’’

The report said the officers were punishing Knight, then 23, because he dropped a cookie outside the chow hall.

The charges were filed by the Florida Department of Corrections’ Inspector General on Jan. 29 in Washington County but weren’t announced until Wednesday, after the Miami Herald made an inquiry. The officers, however, have yet to be formally arrested. Corrections officers Daniel Lucante, Kendal May and Grady Johnson, and Sgt. Joseph Stapp will be charged at their March 9 arraignment with malicious battery upon an inmate, a misdemeanor.

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Lucante, Johnson and Stapp are not currently employed with the department. May is still employed, but is on administrative leave pending discipline. The beating, administered on May 28, 2014, was initially investigated by the FBI, then the case was turned over to the FDC and the state attorney.

The attack on Knight happened about the same time that another inmate, Jeremiah Tatum, was beaten by a group of officers at the prison. That case, which was handled by the FBI, resulted in the arrests of six officers. Tatum, 31, was black, and all the officers who were charged, dubbed “the Chipley Six,’’ were white.

Five of the six were sentenced last year to three years probation. The judge noted the guards had clean criminal histories, cooperated in the investigation and were merely acting under the orders of their superior, Capt. James Kirkland, who committed suicide after his arrest.

All were accused of beating Tatum while he was shackled and handcuffed, then fabricating a story that he had spit on them.

“These were good officers who treated people with respect,” said Judge Robert Hinkle in explaining the light sentences as reported in a story in the Washington County News last year. “They had an out-of-hand boss. My guess is that if any of the five spoke up it would have been enough to stop it, but no one spoke up. That’s a failure on the officers, the DOC and the culture of the institution.”

In 2015, Julie Jones’ first year as FDC secretary, over 1,000 corrections officers were fired, and more than 3,000 resigned voluntarily.

The Northwest Florida Reception Center, in Florida’s Panhandle, has a history of violence. One of the officers arrested in connection with Tatum’s beating later admitted as part of his plea that inmates were often sprayed with chemicals and beaten under false pretenses.

FDC Secretary Julie Jones maintains she has been aggressively working to clean up prison abuses. In 2015, her first year as secretary, over 1,000 corrections officers were fired and more than 3,000 left voluntarily.

However, she has been criticized by some for failing to hold higher-ranking officers accountable. Only two wardens were fired of the 32 who left the agency last year through retirement or voluntary separations. Samuel Culpepper, who acted as warden at NWFRC for many years, is now one of the agency’s four regional directors.

The Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching the state attorney, Glenn Hess, who approved the misdemeanor charges in the Knight case. The court papers were signed by Lora C. Bell, clerk of Washington County.

According to the complaint, after the officers beat Knight the first time, they let him return to his dormitory. But shortly thereafter, they ordered him to report to the barbershop a second time and they resumed the beating, which was witnessed by inmates and at least one corrections officer who reported it. After they were finished, they forced Knight to clean up his own blood, the affidavit said. Knight, who was 170 pounds and 5-foot-9, was serving 12 years for attempted sexual battery.

The inmate’s face was “busted up,’’ he was bleeding underneath both his eyes and his shirt was spattered with blood, according to the corrections officer, who is not identified in the report.

All of the officers, in sworn statements, denied their involvement, the affidavit said.

The Miami Herald, which has been investigating inmate abuse for two years, found that NWFRC had a practice in which officers were encouraged by wardens to spray chemical agents as a disciplinary tool, even if the inmates had done little to disrupt the prison.

This practice of random gassing, which officers came to call “the program,’’ was enforced regularly, and those officers who didn’t go along could face demotion or other punishment, according to records reviewed by the Herald.

A Miami Herald I-Team investigation into corruption, sexual abuse and medical neglect at the largest women's prison in the nation, Lowell Correctional. Reporting by Julie K. Brown / jbrown@miamiherald.com.

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