By Josh Hodges and Brittany Davey
Prisons have always been known for their violent potential, but in Florida, the flares of violence have been increasing.
That’s clear in a 2016 report on the FDOC by the Inspector General. It showed the overall prison population is going down, but the frequency in which correctional officers use force is going up, as are the number of inmate deaths.
According to that report, Florida’s prison population dropped 3 percent between 2010 and 2016. During the same six-year period, use-of-force incidents increased by 18 percent.
In addition, the state’s prisons experienced a series of major inmate disturbances last year. Even FDOC Secretary Julie Jones recognizes the volatility in the system.
“It will lead to a disaster at some point, no matter how hard we try not to make that happen,” Jones said during a press conference in March.
And it’s much worse in some institutions than others. A deeper analysis of the data shows that some major prisons are clear stand-outs when it comes to officer-induced force.
The worst is Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont, where nearly 45 incidents occurred for every 100 inmates. Close behind is Suwannee Correctional Institution in Live Oak with 41.5 incidents per 100 inmates.
Those figures don’t surprise Palatka’s Moliere Dimanche, who served part of his sentence at the Suwannee facility and said violent incidents by correctional officers against inmates were everyday occurrences.
“The violence is enabled by officers and supervisors who hesitate to take action against officer violence,” Dimanche said. “The lack of oversight is the biggest problem.”
In particular, the former Suwannee inmate, who sued 16 prison officials over his own treatment, remembered the Suwanee officers’ treatment of a physically disabled inmate.
“Every day during count, he was told to do jumping jacks while wearing leg braces until he couldn’t do them anymore,” Dimanche remembered.
After falling to the ground when his legs gave out, the inmate was sprayed with a chemical agent that Dimanche said is one of the guard’s preferred forms of punishment.
The Rev. Allison DeFoor, who is a former sheriff, an attorney and a founding member of the Project on Accountable Justice, said one of the reasons for the prisons’ continuous rise in violence is the lack of experienced officers.
“Retirements are leaving the system in a state of collapse,” DeFoor said. “The system is tragically broken.”
When retirements are combined with high officer turnover and the state’s increased difficulty with hiring, it means prisons are often understaffed.
Currently, there are 2,500 positions unfilled within the FDOC.
It also means that the correctional officers who are on staff may be less experienced in dealing with conflict. In fact, the average officer today has only two to three years’ experience.
To make the situation more volatile, there are few incentives in place in the system to encourage officers to change their inappropriate behavior, DeFoor said.
And the violence detailed in the Inspector General’s 2016 report may only be the tip of the iceberg.
According to Paul Wright, the editor and founder of Prison Legal News and a former inmate himself, a large amount of the violence in the prison system goes unreported.
The correctional officers who are committing and witnessing violent acts are the same ones who hold the responsibility for reporting them, Wright said. And there is often an understanding within the culture that officers cover up for other officers.
“There is a type of gang culture built up among the staff,” Wright said. “It’s typically not the guards who were just hired that are committing the violent acts; it’s the ones who have been there for a while.”
Wright pointed to the kinds of rural spots where prisons tend to be located as another reason why the violence might go unreported.
“Generations of the same family are working at the same prison,” Wright said. “You’re not very likely to report your brother-in-law if you catch him doing something wrong.”
Wright said tolerance of abuse in prisons throughout the state is due to how upper management views the violence.
“The tone is really set from the top and goes down,” Wright said. “If the wardens and managing officers are tolerant of the violence, that is when you see the raised levels.”
Ron McAndrew, a retired Florida prison warden, once set the tone of upper-level management, but now serves as a jail and prison consultant.
According to McAndrew, institutions should be treated like pressure cookers. To prevent the pressure contained within from causing an explosion, there must be a way to release it.
Within the prison system, inmates can release their frustrations and anger at correctional officers’ behavior by filing grievances.
Thousands of complaints are filed each year, but for such a system to effectively release pressure, inmates must believe their complaints are taken seriously.
Instead, “99.9 percent of grievances are denied or returned without action,” McAndrew said.
All of those factors – the lack of an effective way to release pressure, a lack of experience among correctional officers, understaffing of officers and a correctional culture that protects its own – may go a long way in explaining the violence in Florida prisons.
But for Henry Brown, an ex-offender who spent a large portion of his life in the Florida prison system, it’s much simpler.
Officer violence sparks inmate violence in return. It’s a vicious environment, he said.
“If you treat a person like an animal, how do you think they’re going to act?”