Los Angeles Times

‘Criminals watching over criminals’

Inmates and officers say Florida guards tout their ties to white supremacis­t groups with little punishment.

- By Jason Dearen Dearen writes for the Associated Press. AP writer Michael Balsamo contribute­d to this report.

In June, three Florida prison guards who boasted of being white supremacis­ts beat, pepper-sprayed and used a stun gun on an inmate who screamed, “I can’t breathe,” at a prison near the Alabama border, according to a fellow inmate who reported it to the state.

The next day, the officers at Jackson Correction­al Institutio­n did it again to another inmate, the report filed with the Florida Department of Correction­s’ Office of Inspector General stated.

“If you notice these two incidents were people of color. They [the guards] let it be known they are white supremacis­t,” the inmate, Jamaal Reynolds, wrote. “The Black officers and white officers don’t even mingle with each other. Every day they create a hostile environmen­t trying to provoke us so they can have a reason to put their hands on us.”

Both incidents occurred in view of surveillan­ce cameras, he said. Reynolds’ neatly printed letter included the exact times and locations and named the officers and inmates. It’s the type of specific informatio­n that would have made it easier for officials to determine whether the reports were legitimate. But the inspector general’s office did not investigat­e, correction­s spokeswoma­n Molly Best said. Best did not provide further explanatio­n, and the department hasn’t responded to the Associated Press’ August public records requests for the videos.

Some Florida prison guards openly tout associatio­ns with white supremacis­t groups to intimidate inmates and Black colleagues, a persistent practice that often goes unpunished, according to allegation­s in public documents and interviews with a dozen inmates and current and former employees in the nation’s thirdlarge­st prison system. Correction­s officials regularly receive reports about guards’ membership in the Ku Klux Klan and criminal gangs, according to former prison inspectors and current and former officers.

Still, few such cases are thoroughly investigat­ed by state prison inspectors; many are downplayed by officers charged with policing their own or discarded as too complicate­d to pursue.

“I’ve visited more than 50 [prison] facilities and have seen that this is a pervasive problem that is not going away,” said Democratic Florida state Rep. Dianne Hart. “It’s partly due to our political climate. But, those who work in our prisons don’t seem to fear people knowing that they’re white supremacis­ts.”

The people the AP talked to, who live and work inside Florida’s prison system, describe it as chronicall­y understaff­ed and nearly out of control. In 2017, three current and former Florida guards who were Ku Klux Klan members were convicted after the FBI caught them planning a Black former inmate’s murder.

This summer, one guard allowed 20 to 30 members of a white supremacis­t inmate group to meet openly inside a Florida prison. A Black officer happened upon the meeting, they told the AP, and later confronted the colleague who allowed it. The officer said their incident report about the meeting went nowhere, and the guard who allowed it was not punished. The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss official prison business. They told the AP that, after the report went nowhere, they did not feel safe at work and are seeking to leave.

Officers who want to blow the whistle on colleagues are often ostracized and labeled a “snitch,” according to current and former officers.

Mark Caruso, a former sergeant with Florida correction­s who was twice fired and reinstated after blowing the whistle on fellow officers, described the department as a “good old boy” network.

He said that senior officers have the power to censor any allegation­s of corrupt behavior that occurs on their watch. This keeps reports inside prison walls.

Caruso worked at three prisons in central Florida and reported inmate beatings and officer misconduct multiple times. He was fired after reporting on a colleague at the first prison where he worked as a sergeant, he said.

He was reinstated after the officers’ union challenged the firing, and he moved to a new prison. There, he again reported an officer’s use of force and was later fired and reinstated after the union challenged it again.

In 2019, he reported for duty at another new post, the Central Florida Reception Center. He was soon greeted with signs on an employee bulletin board where his name had been crossed out and “SNITCH” scrawled instead, according to testimony at a union grievance hearing. Another officer spit on his car windshield, he said.

Despite the intimidati­on, Caruso continued reporting inmate abuse and other illegal activity by fellow officers.

“I have reported people when physically seeing them abuse inmates,” he testified in another grievance hearing earlier this year. The AP obtained video of the hearing at which multiple officers and leadership testified in detail about the system’s reporting structure and culture.

Correction­s officers are required to file “incident reports” if they see a co-worker acting inappropri­ately. In some Florida prisons, supervisor­s often tell them not to email the reports, according to officers who testified at Caruso’s hearing. Instead, they’re told to tell their supervisor verbally what happened or write it longhand. A superior officer then types it up, choosing the language and framing the event.

A sergeant testified that the reason he typed up his officers’ incident reports was because most struggle with writing. Also, most do not have computer access at the prison.

Caruso said he refused to report incidents of corruption verbally because it left no record, and he worried that prison leadership would censor his reports. So he emailed them to create an electronic record, a decision that, he says, irked prison leadership.

After seeing his reports go nowhere, he finally went over his superior officers’ heads. Caruso made contact with an investigat­or in the Office of Inspector General and emailed Florida Correction­s Secretary Mark Inch directly. Inch responded to him expressing concern, Caruso said, and referred the matter to the inspector general’s office. That did not end well, either.

“For at least two years I reported to [the inspector general’s office] all of the corruption I saw. He didn’t respond or follow up,” Caruso said of the inspector general’s investigat­or.

Caruso was eventually fired again after officials said he’d failed to report an inmate beating — one Caruso said he did not actually witness. It was a baffling charge given his campaign of reporting others throughout his correction­s career. He claimed, unsuccessf­ully this time, that the firing was retaliatio­n.

If the inspector general were motivated to aggressive­ly investigat­e reports of abuse by white supremacis­ts or other gang members working as correction­al officers, he would face barriers, the former investigat­ors told the AP.

That’s because state law limits the use of inmates as confidenti­al informants, they said, and guards are reluctant or afraid to snitch on their colleagues.

For an inmate to act as an informant, the FBI would have to take over the case because Florida law limits the inspector general’s office’s interactio­ns with inmates, the former investigat­ors said. “We don’t have the authority to do anything,” one said.

Officers, meantime, fear retaliatio­n.

“Officers are saying their colleagues are members, but they can have me killed,” one former investigat­or said.

After the three guards in Florida were captured on FBI recordings plotting a Black inmate’s murder upon his release, Florida correction­s spokeswoma­n Michelle Glady insisted there was no indication of a wider problem of white supremacis­ts working in the prisons, so the state would not investigat­e further.

After the statement, an AP reporter in April visited the employee parking lot of one facility in the state’s rural north and photograph­ed cars and trucks adorned with symbols and stickers that are often associated with the white supremacis­t movement: Confederat­e f lags, Q-Anon and Thin Blue Line images.

Florida has grappled with this issue for decades. In the early 2000s, the correction­s department was forced by a St. Petersburg Times expose to investigat­e a clique of racist guards who carried rope keychains with a noose. The newspaper reported that the noose keychains were used to signal a racist officer who was willing to inflict pain, particular­ly on Black inmates.

The state investigat­ed the keychains and complaints from Black guards of workplace discrimina­tion. Department inspectors interviewe­d the white guards who were known to carry the noose keychains and eventually cleared them all.

“This is a pattern all over the country,” said Paul Wright, a former inmate who co-founded the prisonerri­ghts publicatio­n Prison Legal News. Wright helped expose Ku Klux Klan members working in a Washington state prison in the 1990s. He and Prison Legal News have since reported cases of Nazis and Klan members working as correction­al officers in California, New York, Texas, Illinois and many other states.

“There’s an institutio­nal acceptance of this type of racism,” Wright said. “What’s striking about this is that so many of them keep their jobs.”

Most state prisons and police department­s throughout the U.S. do very little background checking to see if new hires have extremist views, said Greg Ehrie, former chief of the FBI’s New York domestic terrorism squad, who now works with the Anti-Defamation League.

“There are 513 police agencies in New Jersey, and not one bans being part of outlaw motorcycle gangs. A prison guard who is the patched member of the Pagans, he can be out about it and tell you about it [with no punishment] because it’s not stipulated in the employment contract,” Ehrie said. The ADL lists the Pagans among biker gangs with white supremacis­t group affiliatio­ns.

This dynamic can lead to what the former Florida prison investigat­or described as “criminals watching over criminals.”

“If you have a heartbeat, a GED and no felony conviction, you can get a job. That’s sad,” said Caruso, the former Florida correction­al sergeant.

Florida state Rep. Hart and Caruso have called for a thorough investigat­ion of the issue and a federal takeover of the prison system.

The FBI said it would neither confirm nor deny if such an investigat­ion had been launched, but Ehrie said it is likely.

“I would be extremely surprised if this wasn’t an open bureau investigat­ion,” he said of Florida’s prison system.

Meanwhile, reports of racist behavior by correction­al officers continue, according to inmates and current and former Florida correction­s employees.

In late September, at another Panhandle prison, a 25-year-old Black inmate reported being beaten by a white officer who said, “You’re lucky I didn’t have my spray on me, cuz I would gas yo Black ass.” The inmate’s lip was split open and his face swollen.

The inmate’s family requested anonymity for fear of retaliatio­n.

His mother reported the incident to the inspector general’s office on Oct. 1 and requested a wellness check on him. The office sent an investigat­or to the facility to interview her son, according to emails provided by the family.

After the interview, the inspector general refused to investigat­e the officer’s conduct. The mother was told it was her son’s word versus the officer’s, and there was nothing they could do. The office referred the matter instead to the prison warden.

The officer continued working in the inmate’s dorm and threatened him, the inmate said in letters home.

“All them is a click, a gang. Ya feel me, they all work together,” the inmate wrote in October. For weeks, he sent desperate letters saying he was still being terrorized. He urged his mother to continue fighting.

“Don’t let up Mom. This has extremely messed up my mental. Got me shell shock, feel less of a man, violated ya feel me? But I love you.”

She eventually helped him get transferre­d in early November to a facility with a reputation for being even more lawless and brutal, according to the family and a current officer. He is four years into a 12-year sentence for attempted robbery with a gun or deadly weapon.

“I do look forward to seeing my son one day and I can only pray,” the mother told the AP. “I’m overwhelme­d, tired and doing my best to hold on for my son’s sake.”

‘If you have a heartbeat, a GED and no felony conviction, you can get a job [as a prison guard]. That’s sad.’ — Mark Caruso, former sergeant with the Florida Department of Correction­s

 ?? David Goldman Associated Press ?? A TRUCK with a Confederat­e flag-themed decal is parked outside a state prison facility in Lake Butler, Fla. For decades the state has grappled with the issue of prison guards who are part of white supremacis­t groups.
David Goldman Associated Press A TRUCK with a Confederat­e flag-themed decal is parked outside a state prison facility in Lake Butler, Fla. For decades the state has grappled with the issue of prison guards who are part of white supremacis­t groups.

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