Forgotten Majority

Advocating for the just and humane treatment of those who are incarcerated.


Courtesy of George Mallinckrodt

Despite the recent arrests of a few officers implicated in a pill ring and others who have engaged in criminal activity, the culture of brutality and secrecy is alive and well within the FL DOC.  This paper presents a solution, if implemented, that will identify all officers, administration officials, classification personnel, nurses, doctors, and support personnel who engage in behavior that violates federal and state laws and FL DOC rules as promulgated in Chapter 33.

Image result for pictures of prison grievance processIn broad strokes, the key to exposing morally, ethically, and criminally corrupt personnel within the FL DOC is to transfer the grievance process to an independent agency or oversight committee. Secretary Julie Jones claimed that guards do not skim grievances. She cited the fact that the FL DOC receives 60,000 grievances a year—a number at first glance that appears to be substantial. Upon closer review, this number actually confirms that grievances are not only skimmed by guards, but that the grievance process itself is deeply flawed.

The Math
Statistics suggest that 60-70% of all incarcerated inmates nationwide are illiterate. There is no reason to believe Florida is any different. Given the Florida prison population of 100,000 men and women, that would leave between 30,000 to 40,000 inmates capable of writing grievances. This does not count the number of grievances written by the literate on behalf of the illiterate. Dividing Secretary Jones’s total grievance number of 60,000 by the conservative figure of 30,000,  leaves the number of grievances at two (2) per inmate for the entire year!   To claim that 30,000 inmates average only 2 grievances for the whole year defies common sense. Instead of confirming the notion guards don’t skim grievances, the 60,000 figure, in fact, confirms the opposite!

The following are three solid reasons why the total grievance number of 60,000 is artificially low.
1)  Guards simply avoid giving grievances to inmates
During my tenure at the Transitional Care Unit where patients on my caseload were starved, tormented, and beaten, grievances were always in short supply until I started carrying 50 formal and informal grievances on my clipboard at all times. Guards rarely had any and actually asked me for grievances! In the two years since I stepped forward publicly in Miami Herald articles detailing atrocities in my former unit, many people with loved ones on the inside have contacted me, and among other issues, confirmed that guards still avoid handing out grievances to inmates. I have enough contact from sources around the state to suggest this is a statewide phenomenon.

2) Guards Retaliate Against Inmates Who File Grievances Against Them
Ask any inmate, without a guard hovering nearby,  what happens to inmates who “write guards up” and they will tell you stories of retaliation. This has been more than confirmed by my sources who relay their loved one’s stories of brutality at the hands of ethically and morally corrupt guards. Almost all inmates are in fear of being beaten and/or gassed by guards or moved on purpose into cells with violent inmates to be raped, beaten, or killed. Another retaliatory strategy is to write what is known as the “Bogus DR.” This is a falsified Disciplinary Report slanted in the guards’ favor in order to justify moving inmates into solitary confinement where guards have them at their mercy. Those inmates who have no fear of guards are the ones enlisted by them to distribute drugs and contraband throughout the prisons.

In the following typical scenario, suppose an inmate files a grievance against a guard. The protocol is that grievances are collected in a locked box and are reviewed by classification personnel and then forwarded to the appropriate department for investigation. That is, if the grievances ever make it to classification. Guards have access keys to boxes and pre-read grievances, routinely destroying them. If the grievance somehow gets through, the classification person, who is often the girlfriend, boyfriend, relative, wife or husband of the guard, skims and destroys the grievance. Most prisons are located near small rural towns and are the primary employers—many residents know someone who works in the prison or they work there themselves. In these insulated environments, the odds of a grievance making it out to Tallahassee are nonexistent.

This same scenario holds true for Corizon and Wexford nurses and doctors who routinely deny medical care to inmates. Those seeking medical attention are at the mercy of medical professionals who often have a personal relationship with corrections officers. This was very commonplace in the Transitional Care Unit at Dade CI. If inmates dare question poor medical treatment, the nurses call in their boyfriend, brother, or husband guard who then writes a Bogus DR and the inmate is shuffled off to confinement for retribution. Inmates have no power whatsoever. Everybody working in these tucked away prisons are shielded by a grievance process that has been hijacked by guards and corrupt administrators.

3)  The Prevailing Environment of Longstanding Brutality and Indifference
There are vast numbers of inmates who have simply given up on the grievance process for the aforementioned reasons to avoid retribution. They have learned over time that the FL DOC is indifferent to their concerns. This was the way it played out for patients in my former unit. Countless grievances were filed with little or no attention paid to starvation, torment, and beatings. The patient Harold Hempstead filed over 90 grievances urging the DOC to reopen the investigation into the scalding death of Darren Rainey by guards Cornelius Thompson and Roland Clark. Every single grievance from Harold Hempstead was returned with a short note explaining it was being reviewed or processed “without action.” DOC translation: We’re going to stall and sit on this until it goes away. Rainey’s killing would have remained buried if not for Hempstead’s effort to contact the Miami Herald. Based on my experience, the DOC cannot be trusted to give grievances the fair hearing they deserve. My sources confirm that little if anything has changed on the front lines despite Secretary Jones’s assertions to the contrary.

The Solution
Given that inmates are the eyes and ears for what happens on the inside, it is vitally important that an outside agency or Independent Oversight Commission assume the grievance process from the dysfunctional Florida Department of Corrections. Unlike how complaints were ignored in my unit, their formal and informal grievances must be taken seriously. Inmates’ accounts of abuse are reported with “85% accuracy” according to Judy Thompson of the inmate rights advocacy group, Forgotten Majority. She says that inmates have little reason to lie about abuse given the high price they pay in retaliation from guards.

Amassed from hundreds of letters and contraband cell phone calls that Thompson receives every year—mostly reported from north Florida prisons, she has compiled a database naming guards and abuses they have perpetrated against inmates. Of the approximately 10,000 guards employed by the FL DOC, she conservatively estimates almost 300 have been named in ongoing abuse since 2011. Most are still employed by the DOC and continue their brutality with near absolute impunity. Despite reform efforts by DOC Secretary Julie Jones, Thompson said that contacts from inmates have increased in the last year—not decreased.

An agency beyond the reach of the FL DOC could act as a clearinghouse that analyzes grievances to detect patterns of abusive behavior among guards. Commission staff would dispense and collect grievances to avoid the three previously mentioned common occurrences: Guards simply not giving grievances to the men, officers destroying grievances that reflected badly on their behavior, and retaliation against inmates who filed them.

Guards who are fair and treat inmates with respect, not only maintain safe control over their dorms, but are rarely written up in grievances. Former Warden Ron McAndrew, in Esquire Magazine story, Ron McAndrew Is Done Killing PeopleJason Silverstein, describes his first months as a guard at Dade CI: …I found out that I was pretty good at this. I had no training, but my dormitory was the honor dorm. It was the cleanest dorm on the compound. My colleagues, the other officers, started making some really negative comments to me. They were saying things like “What are you giving those convicts? What are you doing to get all this cooperation?”  Even the lieutenant made that comment: “Oh, Mac, what in the hell are you doing for them convicts?” I said, “I tell you what, lieutenant, I speak a foreign language to them and it gets me all kinds of cooperation.” “What kind of fucking foreign language?” Those were his exact words. “Well, I use words like please, thank you, how about, would you mind, good job, and hey, how’s it going.” I just treated them the way I wanted to be treated.  At the Florida State Penitentiary, Warden McAndrew presided over three executions, the last of which went horribly wrong and challenged him to examine his deeply held beliefs. He now works as a prison consultant and death penalty abolitionist.

Guards like McAndrew would never turn up in an analysis of grievances. But for COs with a propensity for abuse and violence, a high correlation between numerous grievances and excessive force citations in their records is very likely. Guards drawing “red flags” could be investigated and put on notice. If their behavior didn’t change, they could face dismissal or prosecution depending on the severity of their offenses.  As for the 60,000 grievance figure that Secretary Jones touts, if inmates knew they would not be retaliated against by thuggish, brutal guards, the number of grievances in a single week might well exceed 60,000! The point here is to give a voice to those who have no voice, and in the process, clean up the culture of brutality that has existed for generations in the Florida Department of Corrections.

Implementation of an independent grievance processing agency will require funding from the Florida legislature. The cost of this endeavor would be offset by savings accrued from the removal of corrections officers and others whose repeated illegal behavior results in law suits of every variety including wrongful death. Add to that the greatly reduced cost in having to defend a department riddled with corrupt guards and administrators that saddles Florida taxpayers with millions of dollars a year in legal costs.

The FL DOC has 56 prisons throughout Florida. These could be divided into 5 or 6 service areas and assigned teams that would dispense and collect grievances on the same day. In other words, grievances processors (GPs) would stay at the prison for as long as it takes to make sure all voices are heard. In the beginning, DOC personnel would more than likely throw every manner of obstacle in the way including bogus “lockdowns.” GPs may well need to be accompanied by federal marshals or FBI agents to insure that inmates would not be intimidated by corrupt guards and administrators.

GPs would hand out two specially designed documents along with ‘flex’ or security pens – a standard grievance as well as a statement of appreciation. The standard DOC grievance would be reformatted to exclude all the signatures of DOC staff that are normally required and made pointless since the process is independent of the DOC. Inmates would recognize the difference immediately which would reinforce the independent and confidential nature of the endeavor.

The Statement of Appreciation would be noted on the ‘Personnel Appreciation Form’ or PAF. We would also need to know the names of the guards, administrators, doctors, nurses, and other personnel who conduct themselves professionally and ethically. They should be rewarded with pay increases and other incentives that let them know they are appreciated. The majority of guards and administrators indentified by the PAFs are the ones that would embody the future of the FL DOC, an agency dedicated to bettering men and women for reentry into society. As it stands now, many leave the FL DOC worse off than when they entered—especially the severely mentally ill.

After the grievances are collected and returned to area offices, GPs would begin the process of converting the grievances to digital format. Using Excel spreadsheets, the names and behaviors of both the corrupt personnel and the personnel identified by the PAFs would be processed. A separate file would be dedicated to each individual. Over a short span, patterns of abuse and brutality would emerge from the accumulated data. All manner of corruption would emerge from inmates whose identities would remain strictly confidential. The data would be turned over to the FBI or other federal agency. It is essential to keep data from the Inspector General’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement—two agencies with a record of cover-up, corruption, and/or bungled investigations. The only people in the Inspector General’s Office or the FL DOC that could be trusted at this point are the men who came forward with whistleblower testimony in the Senate Criminal Justice hearings of 2015. These men could form the core of dedicated men and women doing this essential work.

Secretary Jones’s continued assertions of improvement, along with auditing agency findings that the grievance process meets federally approved standards, gives the false sense of a grievance process that needs no attention. This is not the case—not by a long shot. The Florida Department of Corrections grievance process is deeply flawed and not reflective of what is really happening behind the fence. By taking over grievance procedures until the dysfunctional FL DOC can be trusted, an independent body can insure inmates’ concerns are taken seriously with the added benefit of removing the culture of brutality and secrecy.  This is a culture that, if left in place, will continue to add to the compendium of atrocities we read about in news stories on a weekly basis.