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Attempted Arrest of Federal Prison Guards in Florida Turns Deadly

The events of June 21, 2006, were so outrageous they seemed impossible (except, of course, to the regular readers of Prison Legal News). That day, two people were killed and a third was wounded when a prison guard at the Federal Detention Center in Tallahassee, Florida, opened fire on federal agents attempting to arrest him and five others. An indictment issued a day earlier accused the six guards of a contraband-for-sex racket involving female prisoners at
the Federal Correctional Institution-Tallahassee, which is adjacent to the detention center.

The shootout began at 7:42 a.m. as agents with the FBI and the Justice Departments Office of the Inspector General (OIG) arrived to arrest Ralph Hill, 43, and five other guards as they ended their overnight shifts at the detention center. As the agents moved to make the arrests, Hill pulled out his personal gun, which he had smuggled into the prison, and began firing. When the shooting ended Hill and Justice Department Special Agent William Sentner, 44, were dead. An unidentified prison lieutenant was also shot but expected to recover.

One of the indicted guards, Vincent Johnson, said through his court-appointed attorney, Alex Morris of the law firm Banks and Morris, that "Hill opened fire first. Hill had been in a secure part of the lobby at the detention center behind glass windows where he would have been able to see what was happening outside. Hill then apparently came out of the secure area and opened fire. The agents returned fire, shooting Hill's finger off and hitting him multiple times", Morris said. Tallahassee police dispatched every available unit to the prison after receiving the 911 call at 7:45 a.m., but the shooting was over when they arrived. The facility was immediately placed on lockdown.

The detention center is a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) intake facility that houses mostly men; the larger FCI-Tallahassee is a low-security female prison that is part of the same complex. Together the facilities hold 1,445 prisoners.

Five of the indicted guards Alfred Barnes, Gregory Dixon, Alan Moore, E. Lavon Spence and Hill were accused of having sexual contact with at least 10 female prisoners in exchange for contraband. The sixth guard, Johnson, allegedly tried to dissuade a prisoner from cooperating with investigators during the 8-month investigation, which included recorded telephone conversations and an undercover agent.

The 13-page indictment, returned by a grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida on June 20, 2006 (Case No. 4:06-cr-00036-RH-WCS), lists 40 specific crimes committed by the guards between September 2003 and May 2005.

During that time the guards allegedly swapped shifts, covered for one another, passed messages, and obtained cash to facilitate their sexual rendezvous. They hid cash, marijuana, alcohol, food and messages around the prison to be picked up by the prisoners. The guards bought some prisoners' silence with cash and contraband; others they threatened, saying they would have them transferred farther from home or would plant contraband in their cells if they cooperated with investigators. The six also monitored prisoner phone calls to ensure their crimes werent reported. In addition, the indictment says the guards extorted the families and friends of prisoners by having them mail, wire and hand deliver money up to $600 at a time to pay for the contraband. The guards also allegedly used cleaning products to destroy evidence of their sexual encounters with the prisoners.
The original indictment charged the six guards with conspiring to commit acts of bribery, mail fraud, and interstate transportation in aid of racketeering. A federal grand jury added additional charges, including witness tampering, in a superseding indictment in July.

Despite the seriousness of the charges against them, which carry up to 20 years in prison, U.S. Magistrate Judge William Sherrill allowed Johnson and Spence to post bond. Judge Sherrill initially ordered Barnes, Dixon and Moore held without bail. Barnes, said the judge, appeared more substantially involved in the scandal than the others. Dixon and Moore, said a prosecutor, tried to evade arrest after the shooting. All five guards pleaded not guilty at hearing on June 22. Barnes, Dixon and Moore were later placed on supervised release with orders not to contact other prison employees or prisoners.

One former prisoner at FCI-Tallahassee, Ashley Turner, said the sexual abuse had been happening at the facility for years and involved more than just the six guards who were indicted. "That list should probably be three times longer", said Turner, who was released in 2004 after serving three years for bank fraud.   "These are just the ones who hung around long enough to get arrested."

Unfortunately, the sexual abuse of prisoners, especially female prisoners, by staff is not uncommon. The bottom line is that women in correctional facilities should be guarded by women, said Alison Parker, acting director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Men have been assigned to inappropriate tasks in inappropriate locations, for example: Male corrections officials guarding women where they take showers. Dr. Roger Guthrie, a former employee at the Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, claims he was fired after reporting the sexual abuse of prisoners there, which he claimed was rampant. "There's no such thing as consensual sex with an inmate", Guthrie said. "Its rape. And its still going on."

But as PLN has reported so many times, sexual abuse of prisoners is not limited to the BOP, or even to female prisoners. [See: PLN, Aug. 2006, p.1]. A 2004 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that all but one of the nation's 2,700 male and female prisons reported charges of sexual misconduct by employees. Similar accusations were made at more than 2 of every 5 jails. About 12% of the OIGs annual investigations involve sexual abuse of prisoners by staff members. In sheer numbers, the Justice Department investigated 351 federal prison employees for sexually abusing prisoners between 2000 and 2004.

Even juveniles arent safe from predatory guards. Just two days before the FCI-Tallahassee shooting, nine former guards at a juvenile prison in Indianapolis were charged with sexually molesting girls as young as 13. And in May 2006, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice fired a female guard, Pamela Watson, for having sex with a mentally retarded prisoner in Okeechobee County. During the month-long investigation, prison officials found several love letters supposedly written in Watson's handwriting and containing her signature in the prisoner's cell. Watson, who officials believe is pregnant, also failed a lie detector test. Even so, officials dropped the investigation in June citing a lack of evidence.

The Tallahassee shooting has also rekindled calls for federal prison officials to search guards coming to work. That guards bring in most of the contraband found in prisons is no secret. In fact, a 2003 report by the OIG recommended searching guards when they reported for duty. Prison officials fought the recommendation, claiming the searches would hurt staff morale. After the recent shooting, however, officials conceded a reassessment of current policies was needed. "The events of yesterday further emphasize the need to re-evaluate this and other of our policies, including investigations of staff and others", Carla Wilson, a BOP spokeswoman, said the day after the shooting. Currently, the 35,000 guards employed at the BOPs 115 prisons arent searched unless there is irrefutable evidence that they possess illegal contraband. The BOP has since noted it intends to modify the Code of Federal Regulations to search guards as they enter prisons. For their part, no comment from the FBI over the practice of arresting people at their workplace to send a message to their co-workers.

Ashley Turner, who now lives in Rome, Georgia, said she knew all of the indicted Tallahassee guards. "One is known as the Rev," she said. "Hes a minister away from the prison. He was very, very bad. He'd pretend to be ministering with the girls". She said she is still troubled by what she experienced at the prison. "You dont' get over a place like Tallahassee overnight", Turner said. "Its not doing the time, but its what happens to you when you're there trying to do the time."

The five indicted guards will soon know what its like to do time, too. On Sept. 6, Vincent Johnson pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit mail fraud; he was not charged with any sexual offenses. Eight days later, on Sept. 14, Alfred Barnes also accepted a plea bargain in exchange for most of the charges against him being dropped. Barnes admitted that families of three female prisoners had sent him money orders, and he provided the prisoners with contraband cosmetics, cigarettes, alcohol and jewelry. He also testified that he had had sex with two of the prisoners. Barnes agreed to cooperate with the prosecution of the remaining guards, who are scheduled to go to trial on October 30. Johnson may testify against his former co-workers, too.

The employment status of the guards is unclear. Moore reportedly received a letter from the BOP stating he was still on paid status but had been reassigned to work from his home. Johnson was notified by the BOP that he had been suspended without pay. According to BOP spokewoman Traci Billingsley, in the rare cases that staff are indicted on criminal charges, it is not uncommon to place them on some kind of administrative leave.

As previously noted by PLN, even when prison staff are convicted of raping prisoners, suspended sentences, probation and light, if any, jail sentences are the norm.

Sources: Associated Press,,,,, New York Times, Palm Beach Post, Washington Post

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