Ironically, while we are relocating to Florida, PLN remains subject to a statewide ban by the Florida DOC, ostensibly due to our advertising content. Our lawsuit challenging this blatant censorship is currently pending before the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee on cross-motions for summary judgment. Florida prison officials have censored PLN since 2009, claiming that our advertisements violate DOC policies. They had previously banned PLN over the same issue in 2002; after we filed suit, the Florida DOC changed its policy just before trial and told the court they would no longer censor PLN based on our ads. The court accordingly dismissed the case as being moot, which was affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit. [See: PLN, Nov. 2005, p.29].
Unsurprisingly, however, it turned out that the Florida DOC lied to the courts about its intentions and began censoring PLN again due to our advertising content. We will report the outcome of our current censorship suit against Florida's prison system.
While we are on the topic of Florida, this issue of PLN is dedicated to William "Billy" Van Poyck. Billy, 58, was an early PLN subscriber, a prolific writer and an excellent jailhouse lawyer. He was convicted of killing Florida DOC guard Fred Griffis in June 1987 in West Palm Beach during a botched attempt to free prisoner James O'Brien, as O'Brien was being transported to an outside medical appointment. Griffis was shot and killed when he threw away the keys to the prison van in an effort to thwart the escape attempt. Another guard was slightly injured, and Billy and co-defendant Frank Valdes were subsequently convicted of Griffis' murder and sentenced to death. Frank was also an early subscriber to PLN.
Ultimately both Frank and Billy were killed by the state of Florida. Frank was beaten to death in 1999 by guards on death row at the Florida State Prison (FSP) near Starke, where he was housed in X-Wing. All of Frank's ribs were broken, his testicles were crushed and he had boot marks on his face; he had also been pepper sprayed, tear gassed and shocked with a stun shield. [See: PLN, Jan. 2000, p.5; Oct. 1999, p.1]. Seven guards were charged in connection with his murder but all were acquitted. [See: PLN, Jan. 2001, p.6; April 2000, p.8]. The state of Florida ultimately settled a civil rights lawsuit filed by Frank's family for $1.17 million. [See: PLN, March 2007, p.18].
Billy provided a eulogy for Frank, which we ran in the October 1999 issue of PLN. He wrote:
"Far from being an 'animal,' Frank was an intelligent, thoughtful man, who never hesitated to stand up and speak his mind when he witnessed the physical abuses here. Frank's outspokenness earned him the wrath of these guards, who targeted him with contrived disciplinary reports in order to keep him isolated on X-Wing. This was not the first time Frank was beaten, and his life had been threatened on more than one occasion. On July 17, 1999, Frank's refusal to be cowed and intimidated cost him his life when on that morning he once again voiced objections to the prisoners around him being beaten.
"Make no mistake about it, this was not an 'isolated incident.' Briefly now, the public spotlight is shining on FSP and the longstanding physical abuses going on here. But it will all be for naught unless fundamental, systemic changes are made, both in attitudes and policies. Staff at FSP, like all organizations, take their cue from the top down. For the past 18 months staff and prisoners alike have heard the message, loud and clear, that beatings are acceptable, encouraged and will not be investigated. This consistent failure to investigate complaints of beatings goes right to the DOC central office in Tallahassee. And, with prisoners' access to the courts severely restricted by state and federal legislation, combined with an increasingly hostile attitude by the judiciary towards 'prisoners' rights,' prisoners have no real recourse or remedy within the system."
Billy wrote several articles over the years for PLN, and he and I corresponded about a wide range of prisoners' rights issues. Recently, while preparing to ship my desk to Florida, I came across the last letter that Billy had sent me in April 2013. He said he thought he was going to be executed soon, and commented on the ongoing censorship of Prison Legal News by Florida prison officials and how much he missed reading PLN.
I never met Billy or talked to him on the phone. Instead, we exchanged numerous letters over two decades. As I sit writing this on Father's Day, I realize how little we discussed his death sentence or criminal appeals, other than in passing, as there were always more interesting and important things to discuss than the state of Florida's efforts to kill him, judicially or otherwise. Every time I received one of his letters I was always struck by, and envious of, his beautifully neat handwriting. His writing was always incisive and well-reasoned. Billy authored three books while on death row and his online blog, www.deathrowdiary.blogspot.com, is worth reading for those who have Internet access.
Billy was one of PLN's early subscribers in the 1990s when we had fewer than 300 readers, virtually none outside Washington State at the time. Even though he was on death row, Billy paid for his subscription to PLN and donated books of stamps to assist in publishing the magazine. This was critical in our early years when postage was our largest expense after printing. I always thought it was emblematic of Billy's commitment to prisoners' rights that while on death row he would use his meager funds to support PLN when others who had far more gave, in proportion to their means, far less.
On June 12, 2013, Billy was taken to the execution chamber at the Florida State Prison and duly murdered by lethal injection. Per policy, no members of his family were allowed to witness his death. He refused a last meal and his final words were "Set me free." We never discussed religion, so I don't know if Billy believed in an afterlife or not, but he is now out of prison. He had spent almost 25 years on death row.
Paradoxically, as the American public increasingly shuns the death penalty, rejecting it as the racist, classist, error-prone barbarism that it is, politicians have become even more enamored of the machinery of death and, as juries impose fewer and fewer death sentences, lawmakers are increasingly eager to kill the thousands of condemned prisoners who populate our nation's death rows.
Sadly, like most stories concerning the U.S. criminal justice system, this one does not have a happy ending. We dedicate this issue of Prison Legal News to the memory of William Van Poyck.
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