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Insanity, Brutality and Fatality: Florida's X-Wing Marks the End of the Line

Upon the ranks of such as we,
They enforce their mastery.
And yet we bleed the same as they,
The tie that binds us day to day.
The public interest uppermost,
So some say while playing host.
But if the public really knew
The kind of hell their prisons brew.

--from the poem Limbo by Rudolph Martinez San Quentin Prison

They call it the end of the line. The hole under the hole. Some call it hell. Human Rights Watch in 1991 compared it with the world's most inhumane and barbaric prisons. X-wing is where Florida's "worst of the worst" are consigned to do their time.

But does that dehumanizing label refer only to the imprisoned? Or could it be that the "worst of the worst" of Florida's prison guards relish the opportunity to enforce their mastery over the denizens of hell?

"Or," as Palm Beach Post reporter Jenny Staletovich writes, "do X-wing and places like it make our most violent criminals even more violent, and, worse yet, turn the men who must guard them into monsters?"

X-wing is a forbidding, narrow, dim hallway in the bowels of the Florida State Prison, in Starke, lined with 24 seven-foot by eight-foot windowless concrete boxes. At the end of the corridor is a room that houses "Old Sparky", Florida's oft-used electric chair. Each cell has two doors, one in front of the other. The inside door is barred and covered with steel mesh, the other is solid steel. Each cell has a steel toilet, a concrete slab with a thin pad on it, and little or nothing else.

X-wing prisoners are allowed no reading or writing materials. No visits. No exercise and no going outside. They get a five-minute shower three times a week. Three times a day guards shove a food tray through a narrow slot. Other than that, X-wing priosners experience total isolation sometimes for years on end.

If X-wing prisoners resist (or "act up" as the guards say) they can be placed on "special management," their legs shackled and wrists cuffed to a belly chain and fed "management loaf" (a chunk of bread with imitation cheese and grated carrots baked into it). They are routinely infracted and punished with more days on X-wing; Askari Muhammad spent 12 years there for refusing to shout out his former name when guards called his number at count time.

X-wing is a place that breeds insanity. "The extreme isolation causes substantial mental deterioration in a short amount of time, which makes inmates more impulsive and uncontrollable," says Harvard psychiatrist Stuart Grassian. "This sends them further into the belly of the beast with no way out."

X-wing is a place where brutality and violence reign. Where dominance and resistance lock in deathly embrace. And where hair-raising tales of torture and insanity molder in a stifling darkness imposed by a society that chooses to remain blind to the struggles that play out daily in hell holes like X-wing.

X-Wing Prisoner Fatally Beaten

The veil of darkness surrounding X-wing's brutality was pierced by the July 17, 1999 beating death of Frank Valdes.

On that day nine guards entered Valdes' X-wing cell. A short time later the 36 year-old Valdes, his body marked with bruises in the shape of boot prints and his ribs broken, his testicles crushed, was dying, beaten to death said state investigators.

"We have classified this as a homicide," said Elizabeth Hirst, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to the New York Times.

According to state investigators, nine guards either witnessed, knew about or took part in the beating. All nine refuse to give statements or cooperate with investigators.

The incident resulted in suspensions with pay for nine X-wing guards and two other guards who refused to cooperate with investigators. According to the Times, the extreme violence of the beating, and the wall of silence that has stymied state law enforcement, prompted the involvement of FBI investigators.

The eleven suspended in the incident are: Capt. Timothy A. Thornton, 33; Sgts. Montrez L. Lucas, 30, Charles A. Brown, 25, Andrew W. Lewis, 28, Jason P. Griffis, 26, Robert W. Sauls, (age not listed), Dewey M. Beck, 51; and guards Donald M. Stanford, 51, Raymon C. Hanson (no age listed), Daren Patgett, 34, and Philip Madox, 26.

The Palm Beach Post reported that search warrants were executed at the homes of seven of the suspended guards seeking bloodied boots and clothes.

One unnamed source told the Times that a five-man "extraction team," along with other guards, came to remove Valdes from his cell so they could search for weapons after prison officials said he had threatened to kill a guard.

Valdes was sentenced to death in 1987 along with William Van Poyck [see side bar] for the murder of Florida prison guard Fred Griffis.

Another unnamed source, according to the Palm Beach Post, said that when Valdes refused to obey their orders, guards first tried to subdue him with chemical sprays and then stormed his cell with a five-man extraction team wielding a 70-pound shield with a stun gun attached.

According to the Post, guards say Valdes received only minor injuries in the scuffle and prison medical staff examined him before he was placed in another cell. Unnamed guards told the Post that Valdes seriously harmed himself later when he thrashed around his cell.

An autopsy concluded that Valdes died of multiple blunt trauma. A second autopsy performed at the request of his family found that both of his lungs were collapsed and he suffered multiple fractures. The second autopsy concluded that Valdes probably died from numerous blows to his chest, said Stuart Goldenberg, the family's attorney.

An Isolated Incident?

"Right now this appears to be an isolated incident," C.J. Drake, the Florida DOC s media flack told the Times. "I would caution you that there's two sides to every story," said Drake. "The Valdes incident has created an atmosphere in which prisoners feel they can rehash a lot of allegations against the prison system." In many cases, he added, "we did investigate them and found that they were without merit."

Van Poyck, 45, said that around July 4, X-wing guards administered beatings to five prisoners that had been moved there from Hamilton Correctional Institution after assaulting a guard. Vince Gaskin, a private investigator, met with one of them, Willie Mathews, 26, at the Union Correctional Institution where he and others had been moved after Valdes' fatal beating because investigators consider them potential witnesses.

Matthews said that some of the same X-wing guards that were suspended in the Valdes beating Capt. Timothy Thornton, Sgt. Dewey Beck, Sgt. Charles Brown, and Sgt. Montrez Lucas beat him several times after he arrived at X-wing on July 4. Once they put a pillowcase over his head as they punched and kicked him, said Mathews.

A letter from one X-wing prisoner received by The Miami Herald on July 15, just two days before Valdes was killed, describes an eerily similar incident:

"The sounds of prisoners screaming in pain and of bodies being beaten keeps the inmates on the entire wing up all night," wrote X-wing prisoner Mike Lambrix in a letter dated July 6. "I can hear the officers forcibly take inmates from their cells. The wretched sound of fists and boots striking flesh are unmistakable as is the sound of some kind of weapon (a stick or a broom handle?) being used. They scream. They whimper. Then there is silence.

"Somebody needs to get the Feds in here," he continued, "to stop this before someone gets killed."

Former X-wing prisoner David Skrtich, now incarcerated at Lake Correctional Institution, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit July 23, charging that he was beaten in the same way, and under similar circumstances, as Frank Valdes. Skrtich claims that in January 1998, when he was housed in X-wing, guards said they needed to search his cell and sent in an "extraction team." It included Capt. Timothy Thornton and Sgt. Jason Griffis, who are under suspension in connection with Valdes' death.

Skrtich, 53, says the extraction team broke his ribs, fractured his thoracic and lumbar spine, and inflicted abdominal injuries. Skrtich was airlifted to a hospital in Jacksonville where he was treated for two weeks, then transferred to a prison hospital at Lake Butler where he recuperated for two months. The X-wing guards claimed that Skrtich inflicted his own injuries.

The Bureaucracy Responds

Florida's new DOC chief, Michael Moore, sent a list of proposed reforms to state lawmakers two weeks after Valdes' fatal beating. Among the changes: A "Central Classification" team at DOC headquarters in Tallahassee will now review all prisoner assignments to X-wing.

"That's a bureaucrat's answer to a deeper problem," says the Palm Beach Post in a July 30 editorial. "The state suspects guards beat Valdes to death and has suspended 11 of them. The state further suspects some of the guards tried to cover up their involvement. Creating a new committee to screen inmates assigned to X-wing doesn't do anything to improve the quality of prison guards there or in the rest of the system. Better pay and stricter education requirements [for hiring guards] might, but that would cost money."

Another proposed reform is that future cell extractions will be videotaped. "That's fine, but of limited value," says the Post in its July 30 editorial. "There is still plenty of opportunity for off-camera violence."

The list of proposed changes also includes: institutional inspectors will report to the DOC's inspector general rather than individual prison wardens; DOC legal staff will handle prisoner grievances; the Tallahassee committee will periodically review the files of X-wing prisoners; and wardens will be notified immediately whenever a prisoner is injured.

Perhaps the most bizarre reform, though, is a proposal to change the name X-wing to something less sinister sounding.

"In hindsight it may not have been the sound we want," Stan Czerniak, Florida DOC's director of institutions told the Post. "Somebody compared it to the X Files. We said, 'Yeah, it probably doesn't sound that great.' Maybe Q...."

Most of the proposed changes reflect a new study by the Department of Justice's National Institute of Corrections released in January that looks at the trend of increased reliance on control unit (a.k.a. "supermax") prisons.

One problem not addressed by Moore's list of superficial quick-fixes concerns the staffing of X-wing (and other Florida lockdown, or ad-seg, units). The January DOJ report suggests rotating staff frequently because of "the potential for creating a 'we/they syndrome' between staff and inmates. When there is little interaction [between guards and prisoners] except in control situations, the adversarial nature of the relationships tends to be one of dominance and, in return, resistance on both sides."

A History Lesson

PLN readers may remember a similar killing first reported in the October 1998 issue. Florida prisoner John Edwards, 28, an HIV+ double-murderer serving a life sentence, was transferred to the Charlotte Corr. Institution after biting a Zephyrhills prison guard. There he was met by a "welcoming committee" that subjected him to severe and prolonged torture. Three days later Edwards bled to death while laying handcuffed and naked on a bare metal bunk.

Following a federal investigation, ten Florida prison guards were indicted in connection with Edward's death. Three of them decided to "do the right thing" by cooperating with prosecutors. Those three pleaded guilty to lesser charges and agreed to testify against their seven co-workers at trial.

The three "cooperators" described a gruesome and hellish three days of torture, perpetrated mostly, they said, by the seven who were on trial

But the defendants turned the tables by arguing that the three "snitches" who pleaded guilty fabricated much of their testimony to cover up their own culpability and shift blame to the defendants on trial.

After deliberating nine hours, the jury returned a finding of not guilty on all counts. [See: "Florida Guards Acquitted in Brutality Case", PLN, July 1999].

The only losers in that case were the three who cooperated with investigators. Is it any wonder, then, that those investigating the beating death of Frank Valdes are faced with an impenetrable wall of silence?

Palm Beach Post, New York Times, Miami Herald, Associated Press

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