On July 17, 1999, my friend and co-defendant, Frank Valdes, was stomped and beaten to death in his X-Wing cell by a large group of Florida State Prison (FSP) guards. As FSP prisoners know only too well, this beating was uncommon only because Frank actually died. And, but for a series of events which led to the Governor becoming personally involved, this murder would have been covered up just as so many other beatings are. Nine guards (a captain, five sergeants and three CO's) have been suspended. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating and the state attorney has publicly labeled it "a clear case of murder." Search warrants were executed and evidence seized from the guard's homes. Charges are expected to be brought. Now, the FBI has joined the case, expanding their probe to the entire Florida DOC, "based upon the large volume of beating complaints they have received prior to and subsequent to" Frank's murder.
Predictably, the guards' attorney, while admitting that "a terrific fight" occurred in that cell (where guards used three cans of pepper spray, a tear gas grenade and an electric stun shield on Frank), has claimed that Frank's injuries were all self inflicted. Autopsy results showed that every single rib in his body was broken and his testicles were crushed. Boot marks were clearly visible on Frank's body. The attorney cynically maintains that the ribs were broken when guards valiantly performed CPR for 40 minutes. Also predictably, the attorney has labeled Frank "an animal," a "serious troublemaker" and an "extremely violent disciplinary problem."
Far from being an "animal," Frank was an intelligent, thoughtful man, who never hesitated to stand up and speak his mind when he witnessed the physical abuses here. Frank's outspokenness earned him the wrath of these guards, who targeted him with contrived disciplinary reports in order to keep him isolated on X-Wing. This was not the first time Frank was beaten, and his life had been threatened on more than one occasion. On July 17, 1999, Frank's refusal to be cowed and intimidated cost him his life when on that morning he once again voiced objections to the prisoners around him being beaten.
Make no mistake about it, this was not an "isolated incident." Briefly now, the public spotlight is shining on FSP and the longstanding physical abuses going on here. But it will all be for naught unless fundamental, systemic changes are made, both in attitudes and policies. Staff at FSP, like all organizations, take their cue from the top down. For the past 18 months staff and prisoners alike have heard the message, loud and clear, that beatings are acceptable, encouraged and will not be investigated. This consistent failure to investigate complaints of beatings goes right to the DOC central office in Tallahassee. And, with prisoners' access to the courts severely restricted by state and federal legislation, combined with an increasingly hostile attitude by the judiciary towards "prisoners' rights," prisoners have no real recourse or remedy within the system.
Those competent, professional correctional officers within the ranks who are not down with the beating program clearly see which way the political winds blow, and they realize that any objections thereto are detrimental to their careers. They remain silent, or quit. Thus, that core group of undisciplined guards who thrive on these, and other illegal activities, end up running the prison by default, being promoted for their deeds and spreading the virus further. Unchecked, as with any sickness, such actions lead to total takeover of the host system. This, of course, is commonly known and understood by prisoners. A generally apathetic public understands little and cares even less. Yet unless the public, through their elected officials, demands more accountability, and begins to question the entire existing system and structure, prisons will continue to be powder kegs reminiscent of the 1960's and 1970's, with predictable and inevitable results.
[William Van Poyck is a jailhouse lawyer currently sentenced to death at FSP in Starke, Florida.]
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