By ADAM C. SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001
African-American prison officers who claim rampant racism in Florida's prison system say the Department of Corrections is retaliating against them through intimidation and life-threatening harassment.
The allegations, made in a series of federal court filings in recent days, spurred a group of state lawmakers to embark on an "emergency" fact-finding tour of several north Florida prisons Tuesday night.
"This is a life or death issue," state Sen. Kendrick Meek said, explaining the need to suddenly break away from the busy final weeks of the legislative session. "If something was to happen to one of those correctional officers, I don't think it would sit well with anyone who had knowledge of what was happening."
Florida Corrections Secretary Michael Moore told Meek in a letter Tuesday that he shares his concerns about the allegations of intimidation and helped arrange the tour of Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach, Marion Correctional in Ocala and North Florida Reception Center in Lake Butler.
"The Department will not tolerate racially discriminatory practices or actions of intimidation against any employees," wrote Moore, strongly denying widespread racism or discrimination in his agency.
Joining Meek on the overnight prison tour were five Democratic state House members: Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, Frank Peterman of St. Petersburg, James "Hank" Harper of West Palm Beach, Ed Jennings Jr. of Gainesville and Christopher Smith of Fort Lauderdale.
The NAACP and 46 black officers from throughout Florida are suing the prison system in federal court, claiming it systematically blocks promotions for African-American staffers and subjects them to work environments that include everything from from racial slurs to lousy shift assignments to "KKK" graffiti.
The suit is an offshoot of similar discrimination lawsuits previously filed by more than 100 correctional officers.
Since joining the suits, a number of those officers say their jobs have become even harder and in some cases they worry about their personal safety.
At North Florida Reception Center, Sgt. Roosevelt Paige said in an April 12 deposition, another officer pulled him aside in 1999 to talk about an earlier discrimination lawsuit against the department.
"He said "Paige, you going to zig and zag, but I'm going to get you,' " Paige recounted. Another time, he said that same officer told him, "Paige, do you know that you can kill a person with a knife and never hear him scream or holler?"
Since then, Paige said, he has had to work the yard alone with 500 to 600 inmates, while white officers regularly remain indoors sleeping or watching television. One inmate, he said, even warned him once to back off because no officers were around to protect him. Normally, at least two other officers are supposed to be in the yard.
At Hamilton Correctional last year, officer Regina Jones-Berry found herself assigned to a yard alone with 300 to 400 inmates. When she had to subdue an inmate with a knife, she said in court papers, no one responded to her radio calls for back-up.
The NAACP filed a series of motions in federal court in Ocala, seeking a court order for the Department of Corrections to "stop the imminent infliction of irreparable injuries."
Among other things, the motions allege that black officers' repeated complaints about inmate beatings are ignored and they are "targeted and retaliated against for breaking the code of silence."
The latest allegations against the prison system come as it braces for more negative publicity. In July, four former Florida State Prison officers are scheduled to go on trial on charges of second-degree murder in the death of inmate Frank Valdes.
On April 5, Valdes' wife reported to Lake Worth police she received an anonymous phone call warning her to stay away from the Bradford County trial.
"You come to North Florida, we're going to blow your f------ head off. We don't want you up here. You're a troublemaker," she said the caller told her in the predawn call.