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    State begins prison inquiry

    The FDLE will look into guards' complaints of discrimination.

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- The state has begun a criminal investigation at a North Florida prison, following a visit this week by African-American lawmakers who said they heard troubling allegations of discrimination against guards.

    The Florida Department of Law Enforcement will handle the investigation at the North Florida Reception Center in Lake Butler, where the lawmakers heard from a sergeant named Roosevelt Paige.

    Paige said in an April 13 affidavit that his superior officer "threatens inmates with beatings and inmates are in fact beaten. When I complain about the brutalization of African-American inmates, my complaints are ignored, I am disciplined, I am retaliated against and harassed by white correctional officers."

    He also said in his affidavit that sometimes he is left alone in the prison yard with 500 to 600 inmates and at the same time, "two or more white officers assigned to the yard along with me ... regularly remain indoors sleeping or watching television."

    About 55 percent of the inmates in Florida's prisons are African-American and about 70 percent of guards are white. Some officers told the lawmakers on their visit that they are harassed or threatened if they complain of discrimination.

    Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Moore also said he had asked his assistant personnel chief to look into discrimination complaints at the North Florida prison and two others: Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach and Lowell Correctional Institution.

    In addition, he temporarily reassigned a colonel at Tomoka to the DOC central office in Tallahassee, until the investigation is complete.

    Moore made his comments in a meeting in the office of Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, who organized the trip by lawmakers to the three prisons.

    Lawmakers who attended the hastily called meeting Thursday said they were deeply troubled by the allegations they heard on their trip.

    "Sleep is something that I enjoy, but I have not gotten a lot of it since we got off that plane," Meek said.

    Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, went on the trip and said Thursday there was no doubt in his mind there were problems in the prisons.

    Sen. Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, stressed that "these people appear to be fearful for their lives and fearful for their security." And she said: "We're not talking about the prisoners. We're talking about the employees."

    Moore stressed that he was not presupposing any wrongdoing by officers but said his staff would conduct its investigations fully and then decide how to act. "We will find the facts out. We will keep you informed."

    He also stressed that it was important for the investigations to be done in such a way that "we are not polarizing the employees at these institutions because the offenders will manipulate the environment."

    The NAACP has filed a series of motions in federal court in Ocala seeking a court order for the DOC to "stop the imminent infliction of irreparable injuries."

    - Times Staff Writer Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or by calling (727) 893-8232.

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