by Jo Ellen Nott
On March 6, 2022, a judge in Citrus County, Florida, handed down a prison term to a former state prison guard for child sex abuse, just days after three other former Florida guards were sentenced to federal prison on February 28, 2022, following their convictions for the brutal assault of a prisoner. Still awaiting sentencing is a fifth state prison guard who pleaded guilty to federal charges of smuggling contraband to prisoners on September 9, 2021, the day after a sixth former guard was convicted of beating youthful offenders and sentenced to a 33-month term.
The six guard convictions—all logged in just over eight months—arrive at a trying time for the state Department of Corrections (DOC), which is the state’s largest agency, with 24,000 employees guarding 80,000 prisoners in 143 facilities statewide, including 50 correctional institutions, as well as nearly 145,000 released offenders under community supervision.
DOC blames low wages and staffing shortages for guards’ misconduct. With a guard vacancy rate near 30%, it spent over $100 million in overtime costs last year to cover unfilled positions in spite of closing several facilities and transferring guards to other prisons. Yet, the agency is plagued by employee misconduct, reporting 35 arrests of staff members or contractors in just over a year, from March 2021 to April 2022. Brutality and corruption with impunity by Florida prison staff is well documented and goes back decades and has been extensively reported by PLN since its inception. Which may be why the Florida DOC has banned PLN from all of its prisons for 15 of the past 19 years.
Six Convictions in Eight Months
The former DOC employee most recently sentenced was James Michael Touchton, 40, who was given six consecutive life terms by Citrus County Circuit Court Judge Richard Howard, one for each count on which a jury convicted him on March 3, 2022, for sexually abusing and strangling two girls under age 12 in August 2018. Until his arrest the following year, he was employed as a guard at Lowell Correctional Institution.
The three former DOC guards sentenced a month before Touchton were convicted of a grotesque assault on a prisoner while employed at Hamilton CI Annex in March 2020. As he chased one prisoner, guard Ethan Burkett, 25, was shoved by a second prisoner, prompting fellow guard Coty Wiltgen, 32, to pepper-spray the second man, who “walked calmly away” and “laid down on the floor showing no signs of resistance,” a DOC investigator who reviewed video footage later reported.
Nevertheless, when the two guards got the man handcuffed and off-camera, a third guard, William Shackelford, 25, knelt on the prisoner to pin him to the ground while he and Burkett beat him. Wiltgen joined in the melee to deliver 15 kicks to the prisoner’s face, along with a racial slur. The prisoner was left unconscious.
In his incident report, Shackleford said the prisoner’s injuries were sustained after he “became combative” and “tried to head butt” Wiltgen. Witnesses and video contradicted that testimony, however. All three former guards pleaded guilty to the assault in June and July 2021. At their February 2022 sentencing, Shackleford received 25 months in federal prison, Burkett got 31 months and Wiltgen was sentenced to 37 months.
The fifth former DOC guard convicted recently was Leslie Spencer, 27, who pleaded guilty on September 9, 2021, to attempting to smuggle contraband to prisoners. He still awaits sentencing. Spencer was nabbed in a March 2021 sting operation, when he was caught in the parking lot of a retail store near the Charlotte CI, where he worked, with three ounces each of methamphetamine and MDMA or “Molly,” along with synthetic marijuana and two cellphones that he had agreed to smuggle into the prison’s offsite work camp for $400.
As PLN has previously reported, the sixth DOC guard recently convicted, Terrance Reynolds, 31, was found guilty after a 14-day trial in September 2021 on federal charges of “conspiring to assault youthful offender inmates at the South Florida Reception Center.” [See: PLN, Mar. 2022, p.35.]
The most recent prisoner death that resulted in criminal charges against DOC employees occurred during a transport between prisons on February 14, 2022. After reportedly dousing guards with urine, the prisoner, Ronald Gene Ingram, 60, was taken from the “transitional care unit”—an inpatient mental health facility—at Dade Correctional Institution (DCI) and allegedly beaten by guards, who then put him in a transport, where he died sometime before reaching an Ocala prison 345 miles away.Guards Ronald Connor, 24, Christopher Rolon, 29, and Kirk Walton, 34, were arrested on second-degree murder charges on April 28, 2022.
DOC acknowledged the death only after the Miami Herald made it public, with the agency then claiming that it “immediately placed 10 officers on administrative leave” and that “one officer has resigned.” A former DCI prisoner described guards’ savagery to the Herald as “just entertainment to them.”
Apparently, little has changed in the past 23 years since PLN first reported on the criminality of DOC guards, almost 10% of whom at the time had been charged with a crime in the previous few years. [See: PLN, Dec. 1999, p.21.]
Sources: AP News, Dayton Beach News Journal, Miami Herald, NBC News, New York Daily News, New York Post, Tallahassee Democrat, Tampa Bay Times, WESH, WFOR, WFTS, WKMG, WJAX, WPLG, WTVJ, WTVT
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