Screenshots of a private group chat surfaced on Monday appearing to show several officers at a Florida prison making inappropriate remarks about an inmate beating days before a video of that incident was uploaded to YouTube.
The footage of the beating at Lake Correctional Institution, apparently recorded by inmates using a contraband cell phone and uploaded on Saturday evening, has roiled the Florida prison system, offering a rare glimpse of what is often described in desperate pleas from incarcerated people to their loved ones and reporters.
Meanwhile, the sister of the inmate who was reportedly beaten and a Florida state representative who interviewed the inmate in person following the incident have accused officials at the institution of misleading them about what transpired and attempting to cover up the alleged abuse.
Screenshots of the Facebook group chat circulated on social media Monday evening, fanning anxiety in the online communities of those with incarcerated loved ones in the state prison system. The Times-Union has independently verified the Facebook accounts and names of every officer who appeared in the chat, which is titled “A Shift Creww (sic).” The names of those in the chat appeared on a roster of correctional officers and their profile photos on Facebook matched.
The inmate has been to another facility, according to department officials who would not confirm his identity.
However, Shantell Grace, his sister, and Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, who interviewed him and observed his injuries first hand identified the inmate as Otis Miller. Grace and Hart said Miller was taken to the hospital and both described injuries to his jaw.
The officers in the group chat referred to an inmate who was taken to the hospital and may have suffered a fractured jaw, but did not mention Miller by name.
The video appears to show several officers on July 8 crowding around an inmate, who was lying on the ground as officers took turns punching him in the head.
Grace, Miller’s sister, said she cried when she first saw the video and called the use of force excessive, emphasizing that her brother is five feet tall and weighs 140 pounds. The beating lasted for several minutes, and the inmates recording it said they feared that the officers would kill the inmate, who they identified as Miller.
In the group chat, the officers appear to take pride in the damage they had inflicted on the inmate, who apparently ran from prison officials after he was discovered with a part of a cell phone charger, according to Grace and the leaked group chat.
“That [inmate] looks like beetle juice,” one officer said.
“I want more lol,” another replied.
“F--- him,” one officer said in the chat.
On Monday morning, the Times-Union sent the Florida Department of Corrections detailed documentation of the group chat, as well as the Facebook accounts it identified and asked for the agency’s response.
Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch responded with an emailed statement but did not comment directly on the group chat or any of the allegations, citing an active law enforcement investigation.
“I will reiterate what I said this weekend, this video is deeply disturbing,” Inch said in the statement. “We have zero tolerance for officer abuse or misconduct for any reason.”
The agency said it encourages anyone with any additional information or evidence to contact its Office of Inspector General and that tipsters can remain anonymous.
The officers in the chat also appear to conduct official business in the private discussion, with the captain in charge of the shift arranging a time for the officers to meet in his office. The Times-Union has requested records of the chat through the Department of Corrections.
The Times-Union reached the captain identified in the group chat by phone on Tuesday, but he hung up when the caller said he was a reporter. The newspaper reached a man who described himself as the father of another officer it identified as a participant in the group chat and left phone and Facebook messages for all officers involved.
Rep. Hart said she was sent screenshots of the chat Monday evening and found the exchange to be “disgusting.”
“I’m in total disbelief that these people have committed a crime and they’re so blatant and they don’t even care,” Hart told the Times-Union. “It’s almost like they think they’re untouchable.”
Hart said the attitudes of the officers reflect a cultural problem that she has witnessed in numerous Florida prisons. The representative, who advocates for criminal justice reform, said she has visited 26 facilities since her election to the Statehouse in 2018.
Miller’s sister, Grace, said she first heard about her brother’s beating on July 9, the morning after it happened, from an unidentified source. She said she immediately drove to Lake Correctional Institution and demanded to see her brother, but was denied the opportunity.
Grace also said prison officials gave her various, contradictory explanations for why her brother was in confinement over the course of the next few days, before the video surfaced. Those explanations included that he was high on drugs, that they found drugs in his cell, and that he punched an officer, according to Grace. She said she then called a ranking officer at the prison.
“I said, ‘Ma’am, which is it, did he punch an officer or did you find drugs in his cell?’” Grace told the Times-Union.
None of those explanations appear in the group chat, in which an officer said “Lmfao. All that over a piece of a charger.”
Grace said she reported the beating to the Department of Corrections’ Office of Inspector General and forwarded documentation of that report to the Times-Union. She said she met with Warden Amy Frizzell on July 11, three days after the beating, who told her that they do not tolerate abuse and that she was “sorry about what happened,” but would not facilitate a meeting where Grace could see her brother. The video was uploaded to YouTube two days later.
It has been nearly a week now and Grace has yet to be able to visit her brother, she said.
Rep. Hart expressed a similar frustration in her dealings with prison officials. She said she arrived at the facility the day after the video was uploaded to YouTube, but officials there immediately placed the prison on lock-down, which restricts movement for inmates and visitors.
Hart said she was told officials were placing the facility on lock-down due to an investigation being conducted.
“It disturbed me that you start an investigation when I show up at your facility,” Hart told the Times-Union.
Hart said she spoke to an inspector who works at the prison and who informed her he was in the early stages of conducting his investigation. But Hart said the inspector “showed up with an attitude, very arrogant and nasty.”
The representative said she has a cordial relationship with Department of Corrections Secretary Inch.
“I believe that Secretary Inch takes this very, very seriously,” Hart told the Times-Union. “He understands that this cannot be swept under the rug and swift action must be taken.”