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Florida: $60,000 Settlement for Juvenile Offender Raped During “Test of Heart” Ritual

by David M. Reutter

A Florida juvenile offender who was beaten and raped by other prisoners as a guard stood by and watched has received a $60,000 settlement from the state.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Florida imprisons more children in adult prisons than any other state in the nation. Some are as young as 14. Because Florida recognizes that such young offenders would be vulnerable if placed in the general population with adults, it separates them from that population.

As previously reported in PLN, the violence in the juvenile-only units includes a hazing ritual called a “test of heart.” [See: PLN, May 2016, p.49]. While at the Sumter Correctional Institution (SCI), which houses more than 100 prisoners under the age of 18, a juvenile identified as R.W. was attacked in July 2013 during a test of heart.

SCI is a split compound; half is general population for adults and the other half is the juvenile-only section referred to as the “Annex.” The facility also contains one dormitory for a juvenile boot camp. SCI is seriously understaffed, and most employees have less than two-years’ experience.

As a result, violence in the juvenile-only units is epidemic. R.W. was given a choice of paying for protection or undergoing a test of heart. The payment option is never ending, and as SCI severely limits or prohibits juveniles from using the canteen, the payment option can result in a youth having to give up all the canteen items he is allowed to buy.

R.W., unable to pay, was warned of retaliation for “snitching.” He had heard stories from another prisoner who sought help from a guard, who simply replied “welcome to prison.” R.W. entered a dorm bathroom to wash up on July 24, 2013 and was approached by another prisoner, who initiated the test of heart ritual by slapping him.

Unbeknownst to R.W., six other juveniles were hiding in the bathroom area. They joined in and began assaulting him, as guard Bruce A. Kiser, Jr. sat in the glass-enclosed guards’ station, which provided a full view of the bathroom.

A lawsuit filed by R.W. alleged that “Kiser stepped outside the officer’s station towards the youth gathered near the bathroom to watch the attack,” but “took no action” and returned to the guard’s station. The beating lasted almost 30 minutes.

R.W. was stabbed more than 100 times with pieces of sharpened barbed-wire, choked and raped with a broomstick. “It was torture,” he said. “I knew the guard could see what was happening, yet he did nothing. I have never felt so afraid or so alone.”

“R.W. suffered a nightmare at Sumter,” added Miriam Haskell, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which, along with the Florida Institutional Legal Services Project of Florida Legal Services, represented R.W. in his subsequent suit. “Unfortunately, his experience is not unique. A culture of brutality persists within the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC), and what R.W. endured is just another example of why children do not belong in the adult prison system.”

The $60,000 settlement agreement was reached on October 27, 2017. What happened to R.W. was not specific to SCI; in December 2016, the Florida Department of Corrections agreed to pay $700,000 to a youth who was permanently injured after undergoing a test of heart at the Lancaster Correctional Institution. See: R.W. v. Kiser, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 5:16-cv-00045-WTH-PRL. 

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Related legal case

R.W. v. Kiser