Florida’s Failing Prison System

Florida’s Failing Prison System

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Florida’s prison population has remained relatively steady for the past 5 years, yet the death toll of the prisoners reached an all time high for the state in 2014. Florida reported 346 inmate deaths from inside of their prisons for that year.

The US Department of Justice is investigating the Florida prisoner mortality rate from 2014 as well as years previous to that. The Media reports that the Department “is investigating these deaths due to the suspicious and systemic nature of them,  and, allegedly almost all were at the hands of law enforcement officers.”

Many of the deaths in the Florida prison system appear to have been caused by natural causes however one highly publicized case paints a completely different picture.

As reported many times by both national and local media; The death of Latandra Ellington age 36 who was serving time at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Central Florida at the time of her death.

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Latandra apparently wrote a letter to a family member alleging that a guard made the following threats; “he told me he was going to beat me to death and mess me like a dog he was all in my face then he grabbed his radio and said he was going to bust me in my head with it.”

Family members did subsequently report the letter to the prison and an official there promised to place Latandra under special protection but by the next morning however, she was dead. An initial autopsy said the manner of death was natural, yet a toxicology report found elevated levels of hypertension medication.

The family did not believe that she died of natural causes, instead they paid for an independent autopsy, lawyers for the family have said that, the independent autopsy found hemorrhaging caused by blunt force trauma consistent with kicking or punches in the lower abdomen. They also found bruising and marks that are also consistent with a beating in the lower abdomen area.

If Latandra’s independent autopsy turns out to be the accurate one out of the two, it does stand to reason that the initial cause of death for other prisoners may have been inaccurate as well.

The Miami Herald reported on a case where an inmate was left for more than two hours in a shower with scalding water. The inmate, a schizophrenic, allegedly was put there as punishment.

The incident occurred in 2012,  and the Miami-Dade medical examiner has not released a cause of death, and a criminal investigation still is pending.

In September of 2014, 32 law enforcement officials including prison guards and officers were fired across the state of Florida due to dozens of cases of negligence, abuse, corruption and death according to Reuters.

Many of the allegations lodged against the Florida Department of Corrections officers have been and currently are as follows;  smuggling drugs and other contraband into and out of the prisons by guards and/or allowing prisoner family to carry it in or out, withholding calls or inmate funds, not allowing inmates to make calls, beatings from officers , coercing prisoners to beat each other,  humiliation, solitary if inmates complain, verbal abuse, rape, sexual coercion, starvation, feeding inmates dirt, poisoning, gassing, causing death, threats, forcing non medicated inmates to take medication, not telling them what it is or why, withholding medication. Lastly, the media has reported that the Lowell Correctional Institute where female inmates are housed, female inmates are fed psychotropic medications at an alarmingly large rate.

I completely understand anyone that says they don’t care that a prisoner is abused or treated poorly because that person has committed a crime against society therefore they do not deserve the same rights as you are I have. The simple fact is however,  our prison systems are setup with the idea of rehabilitation, unfortunately the recidivism rate is not in line with the rehabilitation rate if you look at the numbers of those that end up re-offending.  

We simply cannot rehabilitate prisoners by abusing them

Yet in keeping an open mind here, realistically I have to look at the other side of this picture. A corrections officer just starting out in his or her new role will in most states start at right around $40,000 per year but in the state of Florida the local media has reported that corrections officers in the state will often times start out at a much lower rate of pay than that.  People in this job generally don’t have more than 20 years’ experience. Additionally, experience has a moderate effect on salary for this job.

Officers that work in a correctional facility often times work between 10 and 14 hours a day inside of a locked building surrounded by hundreds of prisoners. Some of these prisoners are mentally ill, violent, most do not want to be in prison, some have no understanding of why they are in prison and some simply believe that they are above the law and don’t deserve to be in prison.

Many will become repeat offenders no matter how much any system tries to rehabilitate them and more often than not, many spend a great deal of time thinking of ways to outsmart the law later down the road. Hence they plan for life outside of the prison walls as a criminal rather than someone who is rehabilitated.  

Of all of the prisons in Florida the most complained about is the Lowell Correctional Institute which houses female inmates. The most highly reported abuse of these inmates is sex assault and sexual misconduct on the part of the officers. Some inmates report beatings, harassment, verbal abuse and so forth, sex is still at the top of the list.

In a recent Miami Herald News report they took a look at the Lowell Correctional Institute, where several inmates both current and former have gone on camera and stated that if they wanted extra privileges, cigarettes or drugs, to be kept safe, etc all they had to do was have sex with a guard and in some cases be on watch while a guard had sex with another inmate. While less attractive inmates complained that the guards didn’t want them because they were less attractive.

The way the story was spun more or less eluded to the women being extorted by guards who are abusing the power they have. The criminals are now the victims more or less.

While these inmates may complain about the sexual harassment and abuse at the Lowell Correctional Institute it seems to me that if I look at this realistically many of those inmates seem to have a very clear understanding that if they want drugs, cigarettes or extra privileges, extra phone calls, more yard time and so on all they need to do is have sex with a guard.

Some inmates report that when they no longer wanted the sexual contact or that if they refused it from the get go it was simply taken from them. Meaning, they were subsequently raped or punished in some other way.

The same inmates will tell you that they had no one to complain to, they were afraid to tell, etc. Yet they were happily accepting the trade off of whatever it was they got out of the situation, drugs, smokes, more privileges and so on.

The majority of these women fought to keep from going to prison in the first place, you could never prove to me that for most they simply were afraid to tell or couldn’t tell. They made the choice to roll over and play dead until the mutually beneficial situation no longer suited them or the guards who were involved.

I am not saying that the accusations are unfounded, I am saying that rather than paint the picture one way or another we need to look at it in a realistic way. The reason the system is broken is, because someone opened the cages and let the kids roam free without boundaries (this goes for both the guards and the inmates), and the management would not acknowledge it so that it could be fixed. Thus leaving it in such a state of disarray that the only way to fix it is to bring in the Federal Government. 

The bottom line is that both the guards and the inmates are breaking the rules and exploiting each other by any means necessary for personal gain.

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In fact, Florida Correctional officers do not follow the Code of Ethics as set forth by the ACA, and quite frankly they should be following them because clearly, Florida’s opt out by making their own code of ethics that pertain to Correctional Officers is not working.

The ACA is the American Correctional Association, or formerly known as the National Prison Association. It is the National Organization for correctional employees.  The ACA adopted a code of ethics in 1994 which outlined the association’s expectations that its members display; Honesty, Respect and A Commitment to Professionalism in their work.

The ACA code of ethics requires that Correctional Officers Respect the Civil and Legal Rights of all People and Refrain From any Form of Discrimination, Including Racial Gender Religious or National Origin.

The code set forth by the ACA also prohibits correctional officers from using their positions for personal gain and from accepting gifts or favors that might imply obligations that are inconsistent with professional duties.

Yet in the state of Florida we have corrections officers exploiting inmates and inmates exploiting the corrections officers. The reality is simply that inmates know if they want something all they need to do is put out, when they no longer want it, or didn’t get what they initially requested of course they are going to get that officer in trouble any way that they can.

While I, without investigating each and every case myself at Lowell, would not go as far as to say some inmates were not forcibly raped, or deny that some officers may have acted in negligent ways or abused his or her power.  Abused it enough to at times cause the suffering or death of an inmate, I do have to take into consideration that from viewing the Miami Herald news story, inmates knew full well heading into Lowell that if they wanted something they knew they shouldn’t have, they could still get it by offering favors or sex to the guards.

As a Whole the Florida prison system is broken, despite Lowell being most talked about and widely reported upon because it houses female prisoners. When an officer at Lowell or any of the prisons in Florida is written up or faces disciplinary action, he or she is more often than not just moved to a new prison. 

Just like with criminals, you can remove them from the environment in which they thrive in, the one that allows for them to commit the crimes that they do, they just find a new way to continue committing the crimes or a new avenue and commit new and different crimes.

A letter sent by human rights groups lists 17 inmates who allegedly died as a result of torture, starvation, excessive use of force, medical neglect, misuse of solitary confinement, suicide or sexual assault.

14 groups have called for federal intervention and included are several faith groups, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, civil rights and prison reform groups.

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The Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University has said, in a comprehensive report, that systemic failings “have facilitated an environment that is dangerous, brutal and in some cases deadly.” The report goes on to say that only a powerful outside agency can provide the sort of continuous oversight needed to reform a corrupt system.

The Florida “System” really offers no real reform, no way to rehabilitate a prisoner. Florida should be looking at Texas and Georgia who both reformed the prison system in each state, they now have much better systems in place that offer rehabilitation which is part of the reason why we have a prison system in place.

Prisoners need structure, they go to bed at a set time each day, they wake at a set time each day, they all have chores they must do at set times, they attend court ordered classes at specific times, once trusted enough or after earning enough good time are offered the opportunity to learn a new job skill or study so they can  obtain a GED or to attend college after prison. The point is, they need to have structure not abuse or extortion in order to reform.

The guards need to be held to a much higher standard than they are currently. So yes, the DOJ should by all means step in and and shake things up across the board in Florida. To do that they need to systematically remove the bad apples and start to hold the correctional officers to higher standards.

It sounds pretty easy but it’s not. To remove the problem children they also must have replacements ready and right now, some of the prisons in Florida are short staffed. The Florida Department of Corrections needs to work with the DOJ and other Prisons from other states who have reformed prisons from hell holes into what prisons should be and find ways of attracting the right staff while at the same time offering better ways to reform the inmates.

In the meantime some pretty swift action needs to be taken in terms of disciplining staff that has engaged in any and all sexual misconduct, trading of favors for goods not allowed to prisoners, or offering extra privileges to some but not all.

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The DOJ needs to step in and take a hard look at all female prisoners currently medicated at Lowell and ensure that those that are currently medicated actually need the medication. Sometimes prisoners will lie and insist they need certain medications, that they don’t really need, because they like the “high” they get from them. Moreover, the DOJ needs to ensure that guards and medical staff are not over, under or prescribing medications that are not needed.

If the Florida Department of Corrections is allowed to continue to run the prisons as they are currently we’ll continue to see stories of misconduct, abuse and death coming from the state of Florida’s prison system.

It is important to remember that being humane is what sets apart from the monsters. If we allow for our prisons to mistreat, abuse and harm inmates then release those inmates back into society as if we don’t care, we bring on whatever problems the inmates continue to have because we made the choice that it was ok to opt out of reforming them by ignoring the problem.

The system we have in place can and does work when it’s enforced.

 

Cristal M Clark