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20 Florida Prison Officials Fired or Suspended After Prisoner Beating, Party

by David M. Reutter

Continuing his quest to clean up the chronically corrupt Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC), Secretary James McDonough fired or suspended at least 20 officials at Hendry Correctional Institution (HCI) for actions related to a prisoner beating.

Prior to McDonough taking FDOC's helm in February 2006, abuse of prisoners had become part of the department's culture under former Secretary James Crosby, who himself was sentenced to eight years in prison on bribery charges in April 2007.
The FDOC's abusive culture has even condoned murder, as when Florida death row prisoner Frank Valdes was brutally killed by guards who were later acquitted at trial.[See: PLN, Aug. 2002, p.12].

Retaliation for filing grievances or lawsuits is commonplace at FDOC facilities. Normally, the retaliation takes the form of a punitive job change or transfer to another prison; the latter punishment is termed "diesel therapy" because it involves riding numerous prison buses.

Charles Gundlah, a Vermont prisoner housed in Florida under the Interstate Corrections Compact, exhibited no fear of retaliation. He has filed over 250 grievances during his incarceration within the FDOC since 1998.

For unknown reasons, Gundlah was housed in a confinement unit at HCI on March 14, 2007. He had been filing grievances prior to that date challenging his treatment and confinement conditions. In fact, on that day, FDOC's Central Office received a grievance from Gundlah alleging that HCI guards had denied him medical care, deliberately spilled his food, and "set him up for disciplinary reports."

Several HCI guards decided they were going to take action to dissuade Gundlah from filing future grievances. Sgts. Randy Hazen, William Thiessen and Phillip Barger, along with guard Gabriel Cotilla, removed Gundlah from his cell. They then took him to an office where they beat and choked him into unconsciousness. Without filing a use of force report or even documenting that Gundlah had been taken from his cell, they returned him to the cell.

The guards had removed Gundlah to the office so their illegal actions would be out of camera view. After Frank Valdes was killed by guards at Florida State Prison in 1999, the FDOC installed cameras in all of its confinement units. Fortunately, an alert guard blew the whistle on his four abusive colleagues. Sgt. Bruce Sooy noticed bruises on Gundlah's neck and inquired about them. Sgt. Sooy then initiated an investigation that led to the four guards who had assaulted Gundlah being fired on March 15, 2007. Gundlah passed a lie detector test about the incident and his injuries, which were minimal, that supported his version of what happened.

The investigation had wider implications. McDonough fired HCI Col. William Avant on March 21, and placed Warden Carol Starling and Assistant Warden James Tridico on suspension. The wardens later resigned on March 30.

Avant decided to go out with a bang. "He [Avant] goes back to his quarters on institutional grounds, but instead of doing the decent thing, like clearing out his quarters and quietly fade away, he throws a party," said McDonough. "And who does he invite? A number of individuals fired already for the apparent abuse of an inmate."

During the party three phone calls were made to HCI, where Sooy was on-duty, making threats against him. Some of the party-goers – several of them armed – gathered in HCI's parking lot during the midnight shift change, looking for Sooy. McDonough took prompt action.

He ordered the prison locked down, had the arsenal secured, sent in reinforcements from neighboring prisons, prohibited off-duty guards from entry, and notified the county sheriff.

The next day McDonough put ten HCI employees on paid leave while firing Major Daniel Sullivan, Classification Supervisor Randy Deen and Secretary Specialist Jennifer Terry. On March 30, McDonough also fired guards James Brown, William Diaz, Kevin Filipowicz, Lt. Tina Morgan and Stephen Whitney. He transferred a captain and another guard to another facility, and two other FDOC employees were placed on leave pending an investigation.

One concerned person repeatedly wrote McDonough asking him to have leniency on the guards involved in the party, e-mailing him that they were only "doing the wrong thing for the right reason." The author of those e-mails was the person responsible for the spiritual guidance of HCI prisoners, Chaplain Robert Wiedeman, who was apparently more concerned about the abusive guards than the prisoners he counsels.
McDonough placed Wiedeman on suspension too, questioning his judgment.

Meanwhile, Sooy was promoted to major. "Sergeant Sooy's actions typify the type of leadership we expect from all department employees," McDonough stated. Gundlah was transferred to a prison in the Miami-Dade area. He is trying to return to Vermont, which sent him to Florida seven years after he received a life sentence for first degree murder.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist praised McDonough's decisive and quick action. "I'm very proud of what the secretary did in this instance," said Gov. Crist. "There's going to be problems. What's important is how you respond to them."

On May 8, 2007, former guards William Thiessen, Phillip Barger, Randy Hazen, Gabriel Cotilla, Kevin Filipowicz, Ruben Ibarra and Stephen Whitney were charged with misdemeanor offenses relating to abusing a prisoner, including battery and failure to report misconduct. Former guard James Brown was charged with grand theft. All were released on $1,000 bonds.

"These former employees were involved in a series of dehumanizing and degrading behaviors," said FDOC Secretary James McDonough, who noted that the guards had forced some prisoners to choose between providing sexual favors or eating their food off the floor. "We had cases where inmates were compelled under threat of force to clean a commode with their tongues," McDonough stated. "There were improper, illegal, heinous, and despicable acts and it was done apparently in an organized and conspiratorial fashion."

McDonough said the FBI and U.S. Attorney's office were looking into civil rights violations; PLN will report future developments.

In related news, former Union Correctional Institution Sgt. Wilton Joseph Fontenot, 47, was charged with federal offenses on April 17, 2007 for falsifying a use-of-force report and convincing another guard to lie about striking and choking former prisoner Corey Milledge, who was 16 at the time of the November 2003 incident. Fontenot allegedly encouraged the other guard to make a false statement that Milledge had attacked him with a sharpened toothbrush. Prior to his resignation, which occurred three days after the incident involving Milledge, Fontenot had served 19 years with FDOC. He is scheduled to go to trial on September 4, 2007.

His future, and the future of the guards who beat Gundlah, may be to spend more time in prison – but this time as the watched rather than the watchers.

Sources: Gainesville Sun, Rutland Herald, Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Brattleboro Reformer, News Press, Pensacola News Journal, Associated Press

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