What's Wrong With Florida's Prisons?

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Florida State Attorney's Office / AP

A still from a video showing boot camp guards manhandling 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, who later died as a result of the abuse.

An uneasy sense of dèjá vu swept over Florida last week after an all-white jury acquitted seven juvenile boot camp guards and a nurse charged with aggravated manslaughter in the death of a black teen last year.

The shocking verdict came down despite a half hour of videotape that showed the guards hitting and kicking the 14-year-old, Martin Lee Anderson, and holding their hands over his mouth for as long as five minutes at a time, while the nurse stood by and watched. The jury seemed persuaded by the first and widely discredited autopsy report that blamed the boy's death on a sickle-cell condition, even though a second autopsy ordered by the state had ruled Anderson died from suffocation (the Justice Department has since announced it will investigate whether federal civil rights violations charges should be brought in the case). "It's wrong!" Anderson's mother, Gina Jones, shouted as she stormed out of the Panama City courtroom after the verdict was read. The Anderson decision was reminiscent of another bewildering verdict five years ago, when three Florida state prison guards charged with stomping 36-year-old inmate Frank Valdes to death in his cell in 1999 were acquitted — even though the guards' boot prints were found all over his back.

Both verdicts were vivid reminders of what critics call the rot of Florida's corrections culture. Despite its Sunshine State image, Florida's prisons and juvenile detention centers are often associated with the more troubled corrections systems of its Deep South neighbors. While no one is asking Florida to coddle its prisoners, adult or juvenile, many fear it has yet to break its dark habit of coddling abusive guards and other officials watching over those prisoners.

The state is facing lawsuits alleging that its prisons subject too many inmates, including the mentally ill, to a prisoner "warehousing" culture of unlawfully extreme isolation and deprivation, usually with little or no rehabilitation efforts to prevent recidivism. Other suits decry what one calls excessive as well as "malicious and sadistic" use of pepper spray and other chemicals to keep mentally ill prisoners under control. In many cases the sprays have burned off inmates' skin, according to the suit. "Florida prisons still need to end this kind of outrageous conduct," says Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute in Miami, which is participating in a suit filed against the state's current Corrections head, James McDonough, along with other department officials.

Neither McDonough nor other Florida corrections officials will discuss the suits, since they're still pending. But the state in the past has insisted that pepper spray is one of the more benign means of controlling violent and mentally ill prisoners — and Florida is hardly the only state that uses such chemical agents to handle unruly inmates. But beyond the pepper spray issue, groups like Berg's acknowledge that McDonough, an MIT grad and former Army colonel, has begun long-overdue reforms to tackle corruption and other abuses. "We're changing the culture of the Department," McDonough insists. "There had been an attitude that [the prison system] was a culture apart from the rest of the state government. Not anymore."

That attitude led to quite a few excesses. Ten years ago, when a malfunctioning electric chair caused a prisoner's leather mask to burst into flames during his execution, Florida's Democratic Attorney General Robert Butterworth joked that the problems with "Old Sparky" — the chair's nickname — were actually a good deterrent to murder. Things didn't improve much after then Governor Jeb Bush and the Republicans took power in Tallahassee in 1999, especially at the Department of Juvenile Justice. In June of 2003, Omar Paisley, 17, an inmate at a juvenile detention center in Miami that was filled 135% beyond capacity, died when nurses ignored his pleas for help after his appendix burst. The nurses were later charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder, to which they have pleaded not guilty, and their trials are pending. Prosecutors at the trial of Valdes — who was awaiting execution for murdering a Palm Beach County corrections officer in 1987 — contended that one of the reasons he was beaten was the letters he'd begun writing to the media about abuses at Florida State Prison under its then warden, James Crosby. That made it all the more surprising when Bush appointed Crosby secretary of the state's Corrections Department in 2003. Then last year Crosby was convicted after a sweeping federal probe of corruption inside the state's prisons — and he's now serving eight years in prison himself.

As Crosby's successor, McDonough surely knows he has to work overtime to regain credibility for his department. With that in mind, he has made prisoner rehabilitation more of a priority, channeling renewed effort and funding toward prison education, substance abuse counseling, vocational training and daily life-management skills. "I think Florida is actually out in front now compared to a lot of state prison systems," says McDonough, who believes his rehab emphasis will cut the state's recidivism rate by more than 10 percentage points by the start of the next decade.

That would be welcome in a state whose 92,000 inmates amount to the nation's third largest prison population. Over the past two decades, Florida has in many ways led a national get-tough-on-crime wave that has reduced some crime rates but has also given the U.S. the world's highest incarceration rate. Bush had championed the often rough boot camps for juvenile delinquents; but after Anderson's death, Florida's conservative legislature voted to abolish them. And it's beginning to listen to McDonough's argument that lowering recidivism will save the state the hundreds of millions of dollars it's spending these days on new prisons.