Death of a young detainee
Two witnesses to the attack that killed 17-year-old Elord Revolte at the Miami-Dade juvenile lockup in August 2015 testified that guards ordered beatdowns of kids in detention in exchange for snacks at the state-run detention facility.
Diego Velasquez and Deandre Smith, both now 21, testified during the trial of Antwan Lenard Johnson, the 36-year-old guard on duty that night who is charged with orchestrating the attack.
“The guards would tell kids to jump kids. They’d pay him or give him snacks inside the room,” said Velasquez, who testified Tuesday and Wednesday and who was in and out of the Miami detention facility five times over five years.
When Velasquez first heard that detainees could get snacks for doing officers favors, such as beating up other juveniles at the facility, he thought it was a joke.
“But then I saw it with my own eyes, observing, and I wanted in,” Velasquez testified. “They don’t give you a lot of food in there.
“The guard would come up to me and say, ‘I put a honey bun on his head,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, how many honey buns or chips?’ ” said Velasquez, who is currently in jail in an unrelated case. “If you got three, four, five snacks, that’s money to us.”
In 2017, the Miami Herald published a series, called Fight Club, that alleged juvenile detainees were offered snacks in exchange for meting out beatings, a phenomenon known as “honey bunning.” The Department of Juvenile Justice denied any such thing occurred. Then the U.S. Justice Department charged Johnson, who was featured prominently in the series.
At the Miami-Dade lockup, juveniles are ranked in levels that reward good behavior. “If you’re a Level 3, you get a snack,” said Velasquez. “If you’re a Level 2, you can’t stay outside as long” during outdoor recreation time. At Level 1, the lowest level, “You can’t do nothing,” Velasquez said.
Detention officers are bound by the rules and guidelines that govern detention facilities, but ultimately, the decision to drop kids a level for disrespectful behavior, or to grant or refuse phone calls, is at their discretion. When guards decided it was time to teach a kid a lesson, they called on other juveniles to do the dirty work, the witnesses said.
Smith and Velasquez explained that guards were mindful of cameras in the facility and of leaving behind snack wrappers — evidence of the payments.
After getting a honey bun from the downstairs vending machine, which was off-limits to detainees, a guard would sometimes “bring it back inside, act like he’s eating it, then give it to me,” Velasquez said.
Sometimes the cue would take the form of “the nod,” which meant “it’s time to attack,” Velasquez testified. Other times, “they just look at me straight and they just move their eyes without moving their head,” he said.
Velasquez admitted to beating up four kids in exchange for snacks and said he was himself the victim of at least one officer-orchestrated attack.
The night that 15 juveniles jumped Elord, an attack that was captured on surveillance cameras, Velasquez and Smith expected it to happen before everyone returned to their unit, or “mod,” following dinner.
“If we jump you in the cafeteria, it won’t give us a good time to mess you up like we want to,” Velasquez said.
“The fight would always happen before we got to the mod,” said Smith, explaining that there were no cameras in the entryway to the common “day room” area where juveniles watched TV.
“Whoever hits the person first, that’s [who] gets rewarded,” Smith said.
Video footage played in court shows Johnson pulling two youths out of the fray, which involved more than a dozen detainees attacking at once, while a second officer radios for backup.
“He was making it look like he was doing his job, but really, he wasn’t,” said Velasquez. “He was just making it look good for the camera.”
“If you don’t do something, you could get beat up, too,” said Smith, who fell on top of Elord during the fight.
A 2017 investigation by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office said some staff “likely engaged in the practice of offering honey buns or other food as a reward to youthful detainees to carry out physical attacks as a means of punishment,” but that allegation could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
The trial, on charges of conspiracy and deprivation of rights under color of law, continues Thursday.