St. Petersburg Times Online: News of Florida

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Full investigations of inmate abuse reports are rare

Use-of-force reports routinely receive little more than a cursory probe, a Times examination finds.

By JO BECKER andSYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 7, 1999


Sgt. Montrez Lucas said he simply placed his hands on Willie Neal's shoulders and pushed the handcuffed prisoner back into the shower.

But when the inmate showed up at the Florida State Prison medical clinic, his right cheek was cut and swollen, his stomach red and his elbows cut.

"The report is a damn lie," Neal, 38, told the nurse, of the report the prison guard filed about him last November. "I got beat."

To explain Neal's injuries, Lucas changed his story. When Lucas pushed Neal, the inmate "could have" struck the wall with his face, Lucas said.

That was good enough for the prison investigator. Case closed.

Neal's case is not isolated.

In the past 18 months, when a corrections officer used force at Florida State Prison, the system rarely did more than a cursory investigation, according to a St. Petersburg Times review of the 142 use-of-force reports filed from January 1998 through June of this year.

Even when an inmate's injuries are inconsistent with what guards said happened, full-scale investigations by the Department of Corrections are almost unheard of. The Florida State Prison warden acknowledges that he has recently had concerns about escalating violence against prisoners, but not a single guard was disciplined in the past 18 months for using excessive force. In fact, since 1993 there has been only one case where abuse was substantiated and guards could be disciplined.

And while internal discipline against guards is rare, criminal prosecution is virtually non-existent. The state attorney for the judicial circuit that includes the Florida State Prison can't recall prosecuting a single case against a corrections officer for battering an inmate.

This was the system in place when death row inmate Frank Valdes died after a violent confrontation with guards. The criminal investigation into his death has revealed flaws in Florida's system for investigating inmate abuse allegations and prompted reforms by the Department of Corrections.

"I'm not trying to defend anybody because clearly we had some aspects of our policies that should have been tighter and we are in fact tightening those up," said Stan Czerniak, the assistant secretary in charge of the state's prisons.

Indeed, Florida's system for investigating complaints of prisoner abuse -- from the wardens to the investigators to the prosecutors -- seemed designed to discourage vigorous review.

Any time a guard touches a prisoner, he or she must file a report. Medical staff examine the prisoner. The use-of-force reports must be approved by the warden, his supervisor and an investigator. But the system isn't as foolproof as it seems:

Until recently, wardens were instructed that they need not have any outside investigators review use-of-force incidents unless there was reason to suspect abuse. At Florida State Prison, Warden James Crosby rarely did.

The Department of Corrections still does not require photographs of injuries sustained by inmates during confrontations with guards. Nor do corrections rules require that investigators interview inmates who may have witnessed confrontations. Of 142 use-of-force cases reported in the past 18 months, the prison's internal investigator reported interviewing an inmate witness only once. For the most part, it was the guards' word against the inmate's.

Before Valdes' death, the Department of Corrections inspector general rarely launched a full-scale investigation into use-of-force incidents. Under a reform announced after Valdes' death, the inspector general will now be responsible for reviewing all use-of-force reports. But for the 13 months ending on July 30, Florida State Prison reported 96 allegations of abuse to inspectors. Of those, senior inspectors looked at only 13. The rest were dismissed as unfounded. Number of substantiated complaints to date: zero.

"There's never really any searching," said Peter Siegel, a Miami lawyer who represents prisoners. "Folks who do the investigation are the cohorts of the people in the prison system."

Florida State Prison

In the daily war between inmates and their keepers, prisoners have punched, stabbed, thrown feces and spit at their guards

Keeping them in line sometimes requires force. Inmates suffered injuries in slightly less than half of the cases reviewed by the Times. The injuries ranged from scratches to broken ribs and severe head wounds.

Guards are supposed to use force only in self defense and as a last resort. When they use force, they must "describe in detail the type and amount of force used." Their use-of-force reports must explain injuries. Guards are also supposed to use the least amount of force, trying pepper spray and a shield that sends an electric charge through the body before physical force.

In the past 18 months, prisoners have complained of unwarranted brutality, of guards who punched and kicked them when they were handcuffed, slammed them into walls and greeted some new arrivals with initiation beatings.

In some cases reviewed by the Times, inmates' stories simply didn't add up. In other, more murky cases, the prison did little to help ferret out the truth. The reports show that the prison investigator interviewed guards and the involved inmate, then concluded in most cases that the force was justified and no abuse occurred. For the past five months, that investigator was a man who was disciplined in 1982 for abusing prisoners and lying about it.

Warden Crosby approved the use of force in most incidents, even when guards' stories appear to conflict with medical evidence. Here are two from the DOC files:

On March 2, 1998, three guards entered inmate Jessie Lang's cell after he refused to be handcuffed. Using his shield, Officer C.A. Reneau reported pinning Lang, 47, to the back cell wall. Inexplicably, the prisoner fell and hit the floor face down, according to the guard's report. The guards then forcibly handcuffed Lang.

When the inmate, in prison for aggravated battery, was taken to the medical clinic, the back right and left side of his head was swollen, his upper right eyelid was puffy, his shoulder was cut, and his ankles were bruised.

Except for maybe the eyelid, none of those injuries were explained in the report. Still, Crosby and the prison's internal investigator approved the use of force and closed the case without outside review.

Nor did anyone explain how murderer Morris Brown ended up at the prison's medical clinic with two gashes over his eye and abrasions on his lower back.

The only explanation given by the guards was that a "cell extraction team entered with the protective (electric) shield. Inmate Brown was handcuffed and escorted to the clinic."

There is no evidence the prison's internal investigator asked about how Brown sustained his injuries. The case was closed with no outside investigation.

The warden

"I won't say some of them aren't close calls, but if you have no witnesses and all you got is four or five officers saying the same thing, it's difficult," he said. "In no way am I saying that nothing has ever happened.

In fact, Crosby said, in recent months he noticed an alarming pattern developing among the guards. In report after report, guards justified entering inmates' cells to forcibly remove them by saying that the pepper spray wasn't working. But studies of the effect of pepper spray on criminals resisting arrest show it is about 85 percent effective. In several cases in which prisoners were forcibly removed from their cells, Crosby signed off on use of force reports but admonished the guards for not effectively using less confrontational means.

"I said, "Look guys, I can't believe these guys aren't responding to gas,' " he said. "I ain't buying this."

And, he said, he was also concerned about an increasing number of allegations from prisoners who said they were beaten up after they were transferred to Florida State Prison for assaulting guards.

Crosby said he moved at least three officers off of particularly difficult wings after they became the subject of a large number of abuse allegations. One of them was Sgt. Lucas, who has since been put on paid leave because of an alleged role in the Valdes incident.

"I certainly didn't sit back and say, "Oh well, we can't make an abuse case, I'm not going to do anything,' " Crosby said.

And he said there is a good reason that he did not send more abuse allegations to the department's inspector general for outside review: a confusing state policy, since changed by the new secretary of the Department of Corrections after Valdes' death. The policy said that when officers use force against an inmate, it "need not" be reported to the department's inspector general unless there is "reason to suspect that abuse took place."

"It says unless you have reason to suspect, not "Do you have a hunch or a gut feeling,' " Crosby said.

William Dotson, the man who conducted outside investigations for the inspector general at Florida State Prison and other prisons in the region agreed with Crosby's interpretation.

But Fred Schuknecht, the inspector general, said all allegations of abuse should have been forwarded.

"Whenever there was an allegation that a prisoner was abused, they were supposed to forward it," Schuknecht said. But he said he understands how the policy could have been interpreted differently.

The inspector

The best signal of abuse may come through complaints filed outside the use-of-force process, he said. In 1998, he forwarded 64 such complaints to the inspector general

"They looked at one and sent six back to the (prison's) internal investigator," Crosby said. "The other 57 -- nothing was done with them."

The inspector general also kicked back official use-of-force reports that Crosby was concerned enough to send on to him.

An example: inmate Kenneth Caudill. Caudill was sent to a Jacksonville hospital in March, after his face was bloodied and badly cut and his jaw was fractured during a fight with officers.

Caudill, 39, who has a long history of convictions for battering law enforcement officers, told investigators that he was threatened, taken to a shower, slammed to the floor, kicked and beaten.

But Officer J.T. Ruby reported that the force was necessary because Caudill was violently resisting and head-butting officers in the shower.

Inspector general investigators did not consider it to be serious enough to warrant a full-scale investigation before concluding there was "no evidence of abuse."

Schuknecht, the inspector general, said his office looks at every abuse allegation. But few warrant full-scale investigations because he said it's clear that the inmates are lying. What's more, he said, proving these cases is nearly impossible: witnesses are hard to find, and when found, are afraid to talk.

"Was abuse falling through the cracks?" Schuknecht asked. "I don't think so. I think everything was being looked at."

Attorney Siegel said the failure to discipline or prosecute rogue guards suggests that the system "in effect ignores abuse charges. . . . They start with the presumption the corrections officer did nothing wrong and unless there's overwhelming evidence to contradict that it ends up getting filed."

No case illustrates the problems more than the episode involving Siegel's client, David Skrtich.

Just before Crosby's arrival at the prison in March of 1998, guards allegedly beat Skrtich on the prison's X Wing, a solitary confinement area. Skrtich, a 53-year-old rapist, spent two months at a prison hospital recovering from multiple broken ribs, a perforated chest wall and contusions from shoes on his back and chest.

The inspector general's office at first concluded the inmate was to blame and tried to prosecute him for beating up the officers.

This, even though Skrtich's injuries were inconsistent with what the officers said happened: that they they entered his cell with an electrical stun shield, forced him to the ground, grasped his left shoulder, placed their knees on his upper body and applied handcuffs.

Skrtich says the officers covered up their "unjustified" use of force by filing false reports on him and slapping him with trumped-up disciplinary charges. He hired a lawyer.

After receiving a letter from the inmate in May, the inspector general rethought his first conclusion. "When we took a second look, we sent it back to the state attorney as physical abuse case," Schuknecht said.

But the office of Gainesville area State Attorney Rod Smith refused to prosecute "due to insufficient evidence."

Smith, whose office is one of the agencies investigating Valdes' death, acknowledged, "We do not have the resources to investigate all the complaints that come forth." In the wake of Valdes' death, the FBI is investigating the Skrtich case.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.