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Suits Claiming Racial Discrimination Plague Florida Prisons

Citing incidents dating back to 1993, over 100 current and past employees are suing the Florida DOC for perpetuating a "long standing custom or policy of racial discrimination." What began as two law suits in December 1999 increased to four suits by March 2000, and now involves the Florida NAACP. Depositions taken as recently as April 2001 suggest that DOC officials have not been as forthcoming as they would like to appear.

Black prison guards allege numerous incidents of verbal, physical and administrative abuse. Louis Brown, a black recreation supervisor at the Lowell Correctional Institution, reports having come to work and finding his office ransacked. Twice the letters "KKK" were spray painted across his bulletin board. Nothing was ever done to address the issue.

Sgt. Paul Patton complained of having to patrol the perimeter of Charlotte Correctional Institution in vehicles that had "Niggers Go Home" carved inside. Reports to his supervisors went unheeded and no record was ever made of his complaints.

At the Union Correctional facility a major was demoted and forced to accept an $18,000 pay cut when he referred to his new black supervisor as "another nigger on the compound."

The scope of the problem is so large that the Black Caucus in the Florida Legislature has pressured Governor Jeb Bush into launching an investigation of the charges. According to Justin Sayfie, communications officer for the governor, the Bush "administration will not tolerate any discrimination in any state agency. We'll take this very seriously."

Florida's prison population is 55 percent black while 70 percent of the guards are white. Florida DOC Secretary Michael Moore made the observation that many of the white prison guards come from rural areas of the state and from families that have worked in the system for generations.

The former DOC Secretary, Harry Singletary, is a black man. He recounted an incident that occurred on death row at the Union facility in Starke, Florida. One night, prisoners were alerted by shouts, "There's a Klansman on the wing." They looked out of their cells to see a guard dressed in a white sheet parading down the run. The incident was verified by the Inspector General's office and the offending guard was eventually fired. But Singletary points out, "They don't see anything wrong with that in Starke. They think that's just a harmless prank."

Some incidents aren't so harmless. In 1993, near the Charlotte prison, several white guards were involved in a cross burning and were shouting racial slurs while brandishing an assault rifle and firing into the air. Some of the guards involved were terminated. Others, including one guard who was wearing a "White Power" tee-shirt, are still working at the prison. [See: PLN , Jan. 1995, and Lawrenz v. James , 852 F.Supp. 986 (MD FL 1994).]

Black guards also recount an incident at Charlotte in which posters that read "OPEN SEASON ON PORCH MONKEYS" were widely distributed around the unit. The posters limited the number of kills to 10 per day.

Supervisors at the Charlotte facility were undisturbed by a note on the bulletin board that read, "You have enough niggers here to make a Tarzan movie." According to guards, the note remained posted for several days.

In the suit, black guards from the Charlotte prison also allege that a group of white guards, referred to as "the Family", regularly beat prisoners and purposely stirred up trouble until it became necessary to send in black guards to calm the disturbances. They complain that this behavior places them in potentially dangerous situations.

A very similar report about the Lancaster Correctional Institution has motivated both the NAACP and members of the state legislative Black Caucus to demand an investigation. Both guards and prisoners claim that at Lancaster there exists a widespread clique of racist guards who carry knotted cord key chains as a symbol of solidarity. In response to the key chain allegation, Secretary Moore sent a dozen inspectors to investigate. Still, interviews with hundreds of employees came up empty.

However, in a May, 2001, interview, Moore refused to comment on a hand-written diary kept by Captain Willie Hogan. Hogan was one of the original guards to testify on the significance of the knotted cord key chains as an emblem of solidarity between certain guards at the Lancaster unit. According to Hogan and other witnesses, these were guards willing to assault prisoners and cover for each other.

Moore's investigation revealed that 24 guards carried the key chains but found no evidence of prisoners being abused. Hogan maintains that investigators were trying to discredit the allegations, not uncover abuse. He also said that guards knew about the surprise investigation long before investigators arrived.

In defense of Moore's silence about the journal, Debbie Buchanan, spokesperson for the DOC said, "We're not going to comment on a so-called hand-written diary." She also made reference to an interview in which Hogan "denied knowledge of staff abuse of inmates." While the report shows that Hogan acknowledged only one case of abuse, which was already under investigation, the report was unclear because Hogan's interview was not taped, as it was with other guards.

Apparently the Black Caucus is not convinced of Moore's objectivity either. If these allegations prove to be true they have insisted that Bush ask for Moore's resignation. Secretary Moore, who is white, is the first person named in a long list of defendants. He is also a relative newcomer to the Florida system. This means that, having been in charge for less than three years, many of the incidents occurred before he arrived.

C. J. Drake, spokesperson for Florida DOC, emphatically denies allegations that the system has a racial problem. He insists that the "Department of Corrections has zero tolerance for any kind of racial misconduct or discrimination."

Jerome Miller, a prison consultant from Virginia, sees racial tension as a problem on the rise in all prisons. He observes that increasing incarceration of urban African Americans and a prison system run predominantly by rural whites is creating a culture clash. He says, "You're seeing less understanding of culture, language, things like that, and it's just like dynamite in there."

But the immediate problem in the Florida prisons is not between black prisoners and white guards. It's between black and white employees. And investigations that keep coming up empty, like the key chain affair, are making matters worse.

Sgt. Shawana Perry was attending a training class at Tomoka Correctional Institution when she encountered Sgt. Jay Norton wearing a tee-shirt with the logo "Boys In the Hood" and a picture of a hooded Klansman. When she confronted him about it he replied, "Fuck you. I don't tell you guys not to wear Malcolm X or Martin Luther King tee-shirts." Norton was reprimanded for the incident, but on the same unit nothing was done to address the issue of a group of guards who sport "KKK" tattoos on their arms and legs. Singletary observes that it is impossible to discipline guards simply because they are active in groups like the Klan unless they do something illegal or break institutional rules.

Sgt. Roosevelt Paige recalled an incident at a meeting where a white guard told him, "Get your coon feet off me, nigger." The captain, who was present at the time and heard the exchange, looked away and laughed. The department has no record of the incident.

In a deposition given on April 12 of this year, Paige validates many of Hogan's complaints. He said, "They discriminate against you for not going along with them beating up inmates." In the same deposition Paige told DOC attorney Blake Hayward that he once sent a prisoner to a lieutenant because the prisoner had complained about getting beaten up by guards. The lieutenant sent the prisoner back to the dorm and he was beaten up again. Paige went on to say that the same lieutenant tolerates abuse and threatens prisoners who file grievances. He testified that guards go into the mailboxes and tear up grievances and get prisoners transferred after they beat them.

When Hayward asked Paige why he didn't file more formal complaints Paige replied, "Why would I complain about things being written out when the colonel ... himself tells wild stories about me and uses the word `nigger-child'? He's the colonel. Do you think he cares about me complaining about any racial incidents?" Like Hogan, Paige says he has kept a set of personal notes. He has also been placed on paid leave while the investigations continue.

Because many of the plaintiffs still work in the system, a primary concern of the NAACP is to protect them from retaliation. Adora Obi Nweze, state president of the NAACP, points out that the long list of complaints is not a recent phenomenon. "It's been developing, quite frankly, for years, in terms of one here, one there" and points to "a clear pattern" of abuse of black guards.

Corey Godwin, who is head of gang security for the Florida prison system, insists that the problems are exaggerated. His overall duties include monitoring mail and recognizing tattoos that may be gang related. Mostly he deals with prisoners, but is convinced that "if it was a widespread problem" it could not escape his attention. "There would be clues all over the place," he said.

Both Singletary and Moore acknowledge that improvements have been made in the area of racial relations in the Florida prison system. However, the St. Petersburg Times notes that more changes might be necessary. They point to the fact that there is still no African American presence in the upper echelons of the prison system. They go on to say that, until this happens, it is unlikely that the racial problems and the suits they bring will go away anytime soon.

Source: St. Petersburg Times.

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