Lynching Culture: Florida Officials Are Experts at Killing Prisoners by Natural Causes

Kevin Rashid Johnson

Minister of Defense, New Afrikan Black Panther Party

On August 24 guards here at Florida State Prison (FSP) donned special “formal” uniforms of black pants, dark grey shirts and black neckties – their usual uniform consists of black pants, a light grey shirt and no necktie. The special occasion?

They were executing a man who was sentenced to die for a double homicide in 1987.

Looking at each guard that day I could only shake my head at their solemn pretensions and utter hypocrisy. There they were united in killing a man as punishment for a “crime” that they frequently collude in committing themselves.

“We Bury Our Problems”

In fact, not a month before, a ranking FSP guard, sergeant S. Cazee, casually boasted to me that numerous prisoners have been murdered by guards at this prison.

His boasts were the conclusion of an exchange between us that began weeks before, when I was struggling to receive my prescribed blood pressure medications. I’d been transferred to FSP on July 14. Cazee was the supervisor of my assigned cellblock.

Upon my FSP assignment, I tried for several days to no avail to have nurses who distributed medications in the pod to bring my meds. After threatening to gas me with chemical agents for talking to the nurse out the side of the cell door when she walked past ignoring me on July 15, Cazee returned later presuming to “inform” me “how things work” at FSP.

He stated that any medications previously prescribed are automatically terminated when a prisoner is newly assigned to FSP, until he sees the prison’s doctor. Even life sustaining meds. He added that although it could take weeks to see the doctor I’d just have to wait. It was pointless to argue that this was illegal.

So I sent word out about being denied my meds and outside protests followed. I then began receiving my meds on July 19 without seeing any doctor.

On July 28 Cazee “escorted” me fully restrained to the FSP medical department, at which time he asked if it was my first FSP medical visit. I replied that it was.

With a puzzled expression he asked, “Didn’t I see the nurse give you your meds this morning?” I replied that she had. He then marveled that he’d worked at FSP for many years, and had never seen a prisoner receive any meds without seeing the prison’s doctor first, even those with life-threatening heart and cancer conditions.

I responded maybe it was because of outside concern and complaints.

“You’re in Florida now,” he replied with a defensive edge, “we don’t care about that here.”

“Well, I’m receiving my meds, so someone must care,” I said.

“You really don’t get it do you? This is the Twilight Zone, people disappear here,” he stated. “We don’t care about outside complaints. People create problems, we know how to get rid of them.”

“And how’s that?” I asked.

“We’ve had a lot of suicides. Best way to get rid of a problem,” he threateningly boasted.

“So you’re saying you all help prisoners die involuntarily, huh?”

“And we bury ‘em.”

“Can I quote you on that?” I asked.

At that he hesitated, then said sheepishly, “I don’t know nothing.” Then added, “Don’t put me in your articles, I’ve read your blog.”

“You said y’all don’t care, so what does it matter?” I asked. He then stopped talking.

Complicit ‘Integrity’

On returning to the cellblock, Cazee led me into a dayroom area, where I was met by a Black male mental health worker named Bowie who’d tried to “interview” me several times before. As I’d done before, I immediately told him I wasn’t interested in speaking with mental health staff.

But he pressed on, attempting to get me to talk about myself. Instead I diverted the topic to abuses of Florida prisoners. I mentioned hearing from numerous prisoners accounts of prisoners being killed by guards and even hearing guards boast about such killings.

He implicitly admitted knowing about such abuses stating, “All I’ll say is not everyone does what they’re supposed to do around here. I can only accept responsibility for myself. I’m not part of any of the cliques or groups around here and I don’t participate in these things.

“You see this?” he said raising his wrist to show me a small bracelet. “It says ‘integrity.’ That’s what I live by.”

I asked how could he live by integrity when he’s surrounded by corruption. He replied again that he could only account for himself.

I mentioned having read articles about a prior Florida Department of Corrections (sic!) mental health worker who’d witnessed and reported numerous abuses of FDC prisoners by guards. In turn her supervisor turned on her and guards repeatedly put her in situations where she felt they were trying to scare her or set her up to be assaulted by frequently locking her alone in areas with numerous mentally ill prisoners around, some reputed to be violently unstable.

In the end she lost her job. The experience so haunted her that her hair began falling out in patches. She apparently wrote a book about her ordeal in FDC and exposed how mental health staff collude with or turn a blind eye to guard abuses. Bowie said he’d never heard about her.

I then asked if he knew about Darren Rainey, a mentally ill prisoner who was killed in 2012 by guards at the Dade Correctional Institution, who locked him inside a shower and scalded him to death; and how the FDC transferred a prisoner out of state who witnessed the murder, wrote about it in a journal and spoke out about it.

Bowie conceded that the killing was true but claimed no knowledge of the secreted witness.

“If you live by integrity, why don’t you challenge and expose the corruption and abuse around here, like the mental health worker I just mentioned?” I asked him.

He evaded the question, stating that I sure was talking a lot for someone who didn’t want to talk to him. I clarified that I wasn’t interested in talking about myself, but that I’m always interested in conditions I and my peers are compelled to live under.

Continuing to dodge my question, he asked if I were having any thoughts of hurting someone.

“So much for your integrity,” I replied. “I’ll go back to the cell now.”

Bowie hasn’t attempted to talk to me again since.

Readers should bring folks like Cazee and Bowie to mind when you hear cops and prison officials repeat the tripe that most so-called law enforcement officials are “good people,” and when “bad things” happen it’s the work of only a handful of “bad apples.”

In reality there are many who commit the full range of abusive and murderous acts, and the rest are just like Cazee and Bowie, who protect those wrongdoers through lying or silence (“I don’t know nothing.” “I can only accept responsibility for myself.”) “Integrity” to them means not doing “bad things” themselves, but by lies and silence condoning and protecting those who do. Fundamentally they are cowards.

Prisons Full of Murderers – In Uniform

In 2014 Florida’s prisons saw a record number of prisoner deaths. Many occurred under suspicious circumstances. Like Latandra Ellington, who warned her family shortly before she died that guards at Lovell Correctional Institution threatened to beat and kill her.

The state coroner dismissed her death as by natural causes. But an independent autopsy found her skull was bashed in and “hemorrhaging caused by blunt force trauma consistent with kicking and punches to the lower abdomen.” Yet the FDC claimed there was no evidence of a beating.

As a National Public Radio report observed, Ellington’s was

“just one of the deaths that have thrown a spotlight on Florida’s prisons. Many came to light through a series of reports in the Miami Herald. The stories documented a pattern of inhumane treatment, abuse and unexplained inmate deaths…”

Then there was the staged hanging of Robert Peterkin after he’d also warned his family of sinister intentions by guards against him. And Matthew Walker who had his throat crushed and head bludgeoned by guards at the Charlotte Correctional Institution. And while on this rare occasion the medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, the nine responsible guards went unpunished and most kept their jobs. Prison officials had cleaned up the crime scene which is a crime in itself. This too went unpunished.

Take also Darren Rainey’s death mentioned above. It’s beyond doubt that he was murdered by guards scalding him to death. Yet the government pathologist Dr. Emma Lew dismissed his death as an accident caused by several combined factors, including mental illness, heart disease and “confinement to a shower.” She claimed there was no evidence of a scorching shower, and that his skin – in spite of severe peeling of over 90 percent of his body – showed no burns.

The state then tried to hide Rainey’s tissue samples, to prevent an independent review by a nationally renowned pathologist hired by his family. The state even refused to comply with a federal subpoena.

This compelled a court order to produce the samples. A retired Miami-Dade public defender testified that in 30 years of handling homicide cases she had never seen a court order required in this manner to have specimens reviewed.

Not surprisingly the guards who murdered Rainey were cleared by the state of any criminal wrongdoing.

But this all barely scratches the surface. In the wake of complaints of prisoners’ grieving relatives, and consequent media reports of numerous prisoner killings, a number of investigations have been staged into many of these deaths. But only a handful of prosecutions have followed for less serious abuses – all as damage control.

In this climate a few guards came forward as witnesses to murders and cover-ups by other guards. These witnesses were, however, harassed and fired, leading several to sue the FDC.

As Randall Berg, Executive Director of the Florida Justice Institute observed of the token responses to these exposed abuses, “The culture hasn’t changed.”

He pointed out that there’s a system-wide intergenerational culture of abuse in the FDC. I’d go further and link it to the culture of the old Jim Crow South, of which Florida was a principal part, where Blacks were terrorized by frequent lynchings. Which is exactly what the killings by groups of guards with the tacit or explicit support of their peers boil down to.

The Continuation of Lynching and Racist Terror

Like in the Old South, the terror amongst FDC prisoners is palpable.

I’ve been confined in the FDC less than three months and have found prisoner killings by guards to be an almost daily topic of prisoners’ conversations. And here there is a condition and expected attitude of passivity and total deference towards the largely white FDC guards by the predominantly Black and Brown prisoners that I’ve not witnessed in other prison systems.

The submissiveness to the guards is only matched by an equally extreme level of overt abuse and a culture of racist domination and impunity by guards, the likes of which I’ve only read about in books on the antebellum and old Jim Crow South. This is especially so in FDC’s solitary confinement units, where prisoners are forbidden to even talk among themselves, and a strict old South code is enforced of “protecting” and keeping white females away from males of color who are disproportionately confined in solitary.

In FDC white females especially are forbidden to work in solitary confinement or to work unescorted by male guards in the cellblocks. This is enforced with particular vigilance by the white male guards like in the old South.

In the FDC’s Reception and Medical Center’s Solitary confinement unit where I was confined Black and Latino female guards were “allowed” to walk unescorted in the cellblocks, usually serving disciplinary reports; white female guards however were not.

In other prison systems where I’ve been confined (Virginia, Oregon and Texas), there is no outright discrimination against women working on the same terms as men in solitary units and cellblocks. In FDC any time a female (white females in particular) of any position or rank enters a solitary cellblock, male guards announce a female’s presence and yell for the prisoners to “get off the door!” If any prisoner is “caught” standing at his cell door after this announcement is made, he is subject to being refused meals, being put on strip cell (being left in the cell with nothing other than his boxer shorts for no less than 72 hours), being gassed with chemical agents and/or receiving a disciplinary report.

The old South culture of racism and sexism (white male supremacy) is so openly flouted at FSP, that there are almost no female ranking guards or administrators, and the one female lieutenant doesn’t operate in a general supervisory position as ranking male guards do. Her position is confined rather to presiding over disciplinary hearings.

Every FDC prisoner of color I’ve talked to has witnessed or been the victim of multiple unprovoked assaults by guards and having white male guards routinely refer to them or others by racist epithets, especially “boy.”

FDC prisoners are literally spoken to and treated like animals and incompetent children by officials, and are expected to instinctively defer to being dehumanized under threat of immediate violent abuse; exactly like in the old South. Most I’ve been around feel powerless to change this and those who resist even in words or attitude are met with prompt abuse. In turn their frustrations are directed at each other, which officials enable, instigate and encourage, to prevent the prisoners from focusing on them and challenging their abuses and the inhumane living conditions in FDC prisons.

The routine brutality and murderous acts against prisoners by FDC guards is, as Randall Berg pointed out, a deeply ingrained cultural practice, continued over many generations.

Amerika has always feared to acknowledge or reckon with its history and founding upon class, racial and gender oppression. So how much more readily will it concede that much of that history still lives on inside its prisons today? The past is hidden by willful ignorance, the present by concrete, steel and razor wire.

Regardless, the struggle to abolish the continuation of slavery in Amerika’s prisons and its attendant abuses must continue until they are completely abolished and we usher in a new era of genuine freedom for all peoples.

Dare to Struggle Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!