A "culture of abuse" permits guards to attack inmates with chemical sprays without justification, the suit claims. Prison officials deny the allegations.
TALLAHASSEE - A group of prison inmates filed suit Friday, accusing state correctional officers of "maliciously and sadistically" dousing them with pepper spray and tear gas while they sat in their locked cells.
The 22 inmates at four prisons claimed the sprayings, over a two-year period, were in violation of their constitutional rights and state policies, and for no more than shouting from a cell or making faces at an employee in some cases. They said they were sprayed even though they suffer from mental or physical illness - a violation, they say, of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers by two inmate advocacy groups, the Florida Justice Institute in Miami and Florida Institutional Legal Services in Gainesville. Named as defendants were Corrections Secretary James Crosby; the agency's inspector general, Gerald Abdul-Wasi; and four wardens.
"Prisoners are being tortured here in Florida," said Lisa White Shirley, an attorney who filed the lawsuit. "Secretary Crosby knows that and encourages it. He encourages a culture of abuse in Florida prisons."
Crosby, who was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in January to oversee the nation's third-largest prison system, denied the charges, but endorses the use of chemical sprays as an alternative to physical confrontations between guards and inmates.
"We found that by using chemical sprays, where there is not person-to-person contact, while that causes discomfort and irritation, we have not seen where it causes significant injury to either the inmate or the officer," Crosby said in an interview.
Crosby said no inmates are sprayed unless authorized by prison medical experts and that most uses of force by guards are recorded by stationary wall-mounted TV cameras that run continuously.
Crosby said the use of close, hand-held cameras during spraying incidents is avoided in most cases because it affects inmates' behavior.
The use of chemicals has been rising in Florida prisons for the past four years, following one of the most shocking incidents in the system's history.
It was Crosby who, as warden of Florida State Prison, advocated installation of closed-circuit TV cameras and use of chemical agents. Those changes followed the 1999 case in which death row inmate Frank Valdes was killed during a violent exchange with guards who forcibly removed him from his Florida State Prison cell.
After three officers were acquitted of second-degree murder charges in Valdes' death, state prosecutors dropped charges against five other guards.
The Department of Corrections has a lengthy section of rules governing use of force, including chemicals.
"Chemical agents shall never be used to punish an inmate," the DOC code says. If an inmate continues to be disruptive after a warning, "staff are authorized to administer chemical agents in no more than three one-second bursts."
Inmate lawyers say every request from guards to use spray on prisoners has been approved by Crosby's staff.
"This is not the first time that allegations of this nature have been made, and each and every time they all have been shown to be false," Crosby said. If any inmates suffer severe blisters or other injuries from chemical spray, Crosby said, it is because they refused to immediately take a shower as state prison policies require.
Inmate lawyers said no prisoner would refuse to wash off the chemicals.
One inmate who is suing the state, claiming he was wrongly attacked, is Curt Massie, 44. He is serving 13 years for the attempted murder of his girlfriend in Largo in 1996. Massie slit her throat with a razor knife. The woman survived.
At a news conference, inmate lawyers displayed oversized photographs of Massie's legs, turned crimson from what they called "severe chemical burns and severe allergic reactions" after the spraying incident at Florida State Prison in Starke in October 2000.
The lawsuit, which seeks class action status, alleges Massie was doused with chemicals when he made a "funny face" behind a prison nurse's back.
"A guard saw it and didn't like it," Shirley said. "So instead of dealing with it properly, they came with chemical agents and they sprayed him until he couldn't breathe."
The lawsuit accuses guards of spraying Sylvester Butler, an inmate at Santa Rosa Correctional, at least 17 times for calling out from his cell, speaking to prisoners in nearby cells, filing grievances against staff members and for unspecified behavior in his cell "that might warrant a disciplinary report but not the use of force."
Butler "has a history of psychiatric problems and is borderline developmentally disabled," the lawsuit states.
"I'm not aware of any situations where that occurred, and it would be absolutely contrary to our policy" to use chemical sprays on inmates with mental illnesses, Crosby said. "And I'm not aware of any investigations that have shown that to be true."
- Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com