Multiple Incidents Indicate Florida Jail Has Culture of Abuse
Three recent incidents at the Hillsborough County Jail in Tampa, Florida demonstrate a culture of abuse at the facility. One of the incidents involved a guard dumping a quadriplegic prisoner from his wheelchair, which was caught on videotape.
When Brian Sterner, 32, awoke to knocking on his front door on Jan. 29, 2008, it was sheriff’s deputies serving a warrant for a charge related to a traffic violation. Since 1994, Sterner has had no feeling below his sternum, no use of his legs and limited use of his arms as a result of a wrestling accident. The deputies took him to jail, placed him in a wheelchair and left him to the care of the jail staff. That proved to be a mistake.
During the booking process, Charlette Marshall-Jones, a 22-year veteran jail employee, asked Sterner to stand. When he said he couldn’t, Jones lifted the back of the wheelchair, dumping him on the floor. She then checked Sterner’s pockets as Cpt. Steve Dickey stood by laughing. Sterner was then lifted back into the wheelchair.
“She was irked with what she was telling me to do,” said Sterner. “It didn’t register with her that she was asking me to do something I can’t do.” He suffered only bruising from the incident.
Shortly after viewing the jail’s surveillance tape of the incident, Chief Deputy Jose Docobo suspended Jones, Dickey and six other employees who failed to intervene, including Cpl. Decondra Williams. “The best I could do is offer him our apologies,” said Docobo. “There’s no excuse. This is indefensible. To the extent we can make it right for this gentleman, we’ll attempt to do so.”
But an apology wasn’t sufficient for Sterner. He wanted Jones charged with felony battery. The sheriff’s office “seems to be headed in the right direction” with the apology, but “when she’s arrested, then I’ll believe they’re serious about it,” stated Sterner’s attorney, John Trevena. The videotape of the incident was disseminated widely on the Internet and resulted in national news coverage and attention from the governor’s office on down.
Local prosecutors got serious on February 16, 2008, charging Jones with abuse of a disabled person. She was released on $3,500 bail and subsequently entered a pretrial diversion program. Cpl. Williams was fired on June 6, 2008; another deputy was cleared of disciplinary charges related to the incident involving Sterner, but resigned anyway.
“This is not the norm at the sheriff’s office. This is an aberration,” Docobo said. However, other incidents at the jail put that assertion in serious doubt.
The sheriff’s office is also investigating a January 10, 2008 incident that involved Jones and prisoner Tammy Lynn Mojica. “She snatched me by the back of my head and slammed me into the wall,” said Mojica, who also claimed injuries to her hand and thumb.
A third incident at the jail involving exotic dancer Charlana Irving, 28, who was arrested in the early morning hours on drunken driving charges, also was caught on video. After she became frustrated because she was not allowed to make a phone call, Irving began knocking on the window of her holding cell. A guard told her to stop.
After he left she kept knocking. Deputy Milton Fassett came back to the cell. “He just rushes into the cell, grabs me by the arm and swings me up against the glass. I said, ‘How are you allowed to do this? You’re not allowed to beat me up,’” said Irving. “He said, ‘I can do whatever I want.’ He twisted my left arm around like twice. He brought his fist up in a 45-degree angle. He brought [his] entire arm down onto my arm, like a wrestler move or something.”
A jail nurse examined Irving and gave her a sling to wear. She received no other medical treatment, and upon being released later that day her jail jumpsuit had to be cut off because she couldn’t lift her arm. She went to a hospital, where X-rays revealed she had suffered a broken bone that took four months to heal.
A sheriff’s investigation cleared Fassett of wrongdoing despite the fact that the incident was videotaped. The investigative report stated it was “impossible to determine if this injury occurred prior to or after her contact with law enforcement the morning of the arrest.”
Which may explain why the incident involving Sterner was described as an “aberration” – because if you keep your eyes closed to abuse most of the time, what you are occasionally forced to see must seem unusual. PLN has reported other incidents at the Hillsborough County Jail, including when pregnant prisoner Kimberly Grey was denied medical care and had to give birth over a jail toilet in March 2004. Her baby died soon afterwards. [See: PLN, Oct. 2007, p.32].
Further, a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in February 2008 claims that prisoner Marcella Pourmoghani-Esfahani was beaten by a deputy at the jail on Nov. 11, 2006, causing brain injuries. A videotape of the assault was released by Esfahani’s attorney. See: Pourmoghani-Esfahani v. Gee, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 8:08-cv-00328-SDM-TGW.
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee created an independent 11-member commission to review the jail facilities in February 2008; the commission’s final report was released on Sept. 10, 2008. The report, which was based on interviews with staff, on-site jail visits and public input during twelve public hearings, included in-depth reviews of use of force policies, investigations into staff misconduct, and the prisoner grievance system. The commission “documented many more strengths than weaknesses” at the Hillsborough County jails, and largely lauded their policies and procedures.
Some deficiencies were noted in understaffing, the grievance system, and use of force definitions. In regard to grievances, the commission noted that in 2007 no prisoners had filed grievance appeals, apparently because it was not clear how the appeals should be filed. The Sheriff’s office issued a formal response to the report on Nov. 12, 2008, explaining how the commission’s recommendations would be implemented.
Sterner and Irving have both announced plans to sue the Sheriff’s office, so a jury may have the last word as to whether the Hillsborough County Jail has a culture of abuse.
Sources: Fox News, Live Leak, MSNBC, Tampa Tribune, Associated Press, Sun-Sentinel
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Related legal case
Pourmoghani-Esfahani v. Gee
|U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case # 8:08-cv-00328-SDM-TGW