Thursday, January 21, 2010

Welcome in the Jungle

With over 100.000 prisoners now incarnated within the Florida Department of Corrections, there are almost 70 different prisons throughout the state. Most are not all that bad, with large open compounds where the prisoners can spend long afternoons playing sports and just “hanging out” with each other as their sentence ticks down one day at a time and they dream of the day they can go home.

Florida State Prison is the exception. All prisons in Florida are formally called “correctional institutions” and by law are intended to provide a “rehabilitative” environment where the offender can participate in various programs before being released back into society, hopefully a better man going out than when he came in. But Florida State Prison is the only institution actually formally called a “prison” in Florida – and for good reason. At “FSP” there are no rehabilitation programs and prisoners are not allowed to go out to an open compound. Rather, the prison is intended to do nothing but confine the prisoner in a solitary cell until they either die or must be released back into society.

I’ve personally been in “the system” almost 30 years now – the past 26 years on death row. Many of these years have been spent here at FSP, beginning back in the early 80’s when FSP was a different place, a prison commonly known as “the Alcatraz of the South”, and for good reason. Other then these sentenced to death, which automatically came to FSP, this was the end of the line for prisoners who, because of their propensity for violence or stupidity, could not be housed anywhere else.

Back then, most of the “wings” at FSP were “open population”, where the prisoners were allowed out of their cells to work jobs within the prison during the day, then locked in their cells at night. They had a large recreation yard where they could play sports or work out with weights.

Since FSP opened around 1959, it has always had a history of extreme violence. It was a kill or be killed environment where assaults and murders were simply part of the daily routine. Florida State Prison was also more commonly known for being home to “Old Sparky” (the electric chair) where Florida carried out its executions. The lesser known truth was that far more prisoners went out in body bags, after being killed in general population, than were executed by the state of Florida. Many of these long forgotten souls
rest in the prison’s graveyard “boot hill”, where prisoners who die in the system are laid to rest if nobody claims their bodies. Only their prison inmate number marks the grave, their own name is soon forgotten.







By the early 1990’s FSP started to drastically change. One wing at a time they eliminated “general population”, replacing the most violent offenders with mentally imbalanced inmates, where they now remain for years and even decades in solitary confinement. New housing units were built where the recreation yard used to be and it now houses minimum or medium security inmates who journey over to the “main unit” each morning to work; clean up, kitchen and maintenance jobs.

By December 1992 the Department of Corrections opened a newly constructed 332 bed unit at Union Correctional Institution (UCI) specifically as the new “death row” and within months the majority of Florida’s death row prisoners were transferred to the new unit. Only a few death row prisoners remained at FSP, those who allegedly had a history of assaulting or killing guards.

But it didn’t take long before the new death row unit filled to capacity and those originally sentenced to death row after 1992 continued to be sent to FSP where they remained until a cell became available at UCI. Equally so, death row inmates in UCI who allegedly became a "security threat" or those who created too many problems by filing many grievances or stepping on the wrong toes found themselves transferred back to FSP.

After UCI opened I was one of the first ones being transferred there. It was a new building, clean and shiny and the cells were bigger than at FSP. It was a big improvement over the deplorable living conditions at FSP where the cellblocks were infested with cockroaches, rodents – even bird and snakes. If you had to be on death row, the UCI unit wasn’t a bad place to be. To an outsider looking in, it was perhaps pure hell but for those of us living for years at FSP, it was like winning the lottery and moving into a big mansion.

But then there’s the dark side of death row. Beginning in the early 1990’s it became increasingly common for guards to target prisoners for violent assaults, especially those who dared to file grievances. In late 1996 I had to file a grievance when a book I had mailed in was taken. The Administration Sergeant (Norman G) had me brought to his office, of course handcuffed and shackled. At first Sgt G began talking to me, clearly agitated because I dared to file a grievance. That quickly escalated and suddenly without provocation he came at me and began to violently assault me. The other officers pulled him off, but not before I sustained injuries and then spent the night in the prison infirmary (hospital)

I’ve never been one to back down and so I soon filed formal complaints against Sgt G and then a Federal lawsuit. As it’s only too common within the Florida Department of Corrections (or as many newspapers have described it, the “Department of Corruptions”) after the lawsuit was filed Sgt Gemelli was promoted to a supervisory position and I soon found myself being transferred back to FSP.

In the first weeks of January 1998 I walked back into Florida State Prison and descended back down into the bowels of the beast. But FSP had radically changed since I had left in December 1992. I walked into a familiar world in which I was a stranger. Never could I have imagined that even as bad as FSP was in the past, it had become an even more brutally violent place. Only now it was not the prisoners responsible for the violence and chaos but rather the guards. I quickly found out that under Warden James Crosby the guards were allowed to violently assault prisoners and actually FSP was now run by the guards. Of course, while assaulting a prisoner they made sure the inmate was handcuffed and physically restrained, completely unable to defend himself. Not all the guards got involved with this, but each shift had its own group of guards that became the predators in this jungle. Like a pack of rabid dogs they preyed upon their victims, assaulting anyone they choose to target for whatever reason. These coward thugs had no respect for the badge of law enforcement they wore and were themselves nothing but state paid violent criminals.

Repeatedly I saw one prisoner after another pulled from his cell under pretenses such as a medical callout or cell search, only to be taken to the “quarterdeck” where other inmates could not see the actual assaults, and a few minutes later they would be brought back bruised and bleeding from the violence that had been inflicted upon them for no other reason but that these coward dogs just had to bite someone.

In June 1999 I was subjected to a “disciplinary report” for allegedly disrespecting one of these guards. Soon I found myself being moved to “X-wing” (now called Q-wing) where I was to do 30 days in lock-up (disciplinary confinement). Death row lock-up was on the third floor of X-wing and already there were several other death row prisoners housed up there, including Frank Valdez, who was sentenced to death for allegedly killing a prison guard in South Florida.

The two upper floors of X-wing (or Q-wing as it is now known) consist of 6 cells on each side for a total of 24 cells. They are used to house only the “worst of the worst” and it is in itself a level of hell beyond description and just the threat of being sent to X-wing causes even the toughest convict to shiver. Very few prisoners ever see the inside of X-wing, and of those who did many have come off X-wing in a body bag out of the back door. The bottom floor of X-wing is Florida’s execution chamber, with 6 cells for “death watch”.

On June, 4 1999 I was housed on 3-west of X-wing. Late that evening a guard came around shutting the outer cell doors of each cell. Unlike most other cells, only the cells on X-wing had both an outer solid steel cell door and an inner door made of steel bars. When this outer door is closed and locked, it completely seals the cell with only a small space at the bottom of the door where a sliver of light could come through. But if you laid down flat on the floor you could see under the door just enough to see whether anyone is congregating in the hall outside.

Generally, it was a good idea to pay attention to what was going on as when the outer doors were closed like this, that was more often than not a warning that the pack of rabid guards were planning to come in on someone – and it could be you. But this time it was not me. A few minutes after the outer door was closed I could hear a scuffling sound of boots outside my door and I watched from beneath the door as at least six sets of boots passed by. They were putting someone in one of the other cells and from the sound of it; the “welcome party” was working overtime brutally assaulting him. It is hard to describe the distinctive sound of boots repeatedly hitting flesh and the involuntary sounds of extreme pain – but for these familiar with it, you don’t soon forget.

Throughout the night these sounds continued. Never before, or since, had I heard such sounds as I heard that night. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sat silently in his cell that night as the sounds of one prisoner after another being brutally beaten filled the air, each of us not knowing what was going on – wondering if at any moment our own cell door might open and it would be our turn to suffer the fate.

Only the next day did I learn what had happened. A number of inmates at Hamilton Correctional Institution, a facility about an hour away, had gotten into a confrontation with a guard which escalated and a female officer was assaulted. Anyone who has ever done time knows that as extreme the consequences would be if you assaulted a guard, they would be a lot worse if you assaulted a female officer. Now I understood what was going on.

It didn’t take long to find out that they had moved four black inmates to X-wing the night before, all allegedly responsible for assaulting the female officer. Each of the four was then repeatedly assaulted by the guards throughout the night and that were the sounds we heard all night long.

But it wasn’t enough to extract that proverbial pound of flesh from each of the four inmates – these guards wanted revenge and they intended to get it. For several days the guards took turns assaulting each of these four and each time with extreme malice. There was no doubt in my mind it was just a matter of time before they killed them – and it wouldn’t be the first time a prisoner was brutally beaten to death by guards at FSP.

The first rule about doing time in any prison is to mind your own business. But I’ve never been one to just ignore the deliberal abuse of anyone around me. I know that I could not physically intervene to stop what was happening - but I could write letters to let people know what was going on. So I wrote a federal judge in Jacksonville and several letters to several newspapers, graphically describing what was going on, pleading with each to do something before these guards killed somebody. I was not the only one. Frank Valdez was also writing letters, hoping that someone would look into what was going on before they killed these guys.




Frank Valdez




But these brutal assaults continued, the screams of pain and misery echoing off the walls at all hours of the day and night. Some might argue that they brought it on themselves by assaulting the female officer and even I don’t think much of a man who assaults women. But nobody deserved this.

About a week later outside people started calling into the prison, asking about what was going on. Although I don’t know it for a fact, I’m pretty sure that they found out that me and Frank Valdez had written to the lawyers and media as I was suddenly moved off X-wing to an isolated cell on G-wing where I had no direct contact with other prisoners. In all the years that I had been on death row this was the first time and only time I had ever been isolated on a floor by myself, so I knew something was up.

That next day I found out that they had jumped on Frank Valdez and beat him to death. The autopsy report later documented the severity of the assault with clearly defined boot prints all over his body and almost every bone broken. Clearly they crossed the line as beating a prisoner to death would not go unnoticed. Now they had to cover their butts and as they gathered to fabricate their story of how Frank Valdez had climbed up the bars of his cell and repeatedly threw himself down onto the steel bunk – clearly a case of suicide – the guards also had to silence the few who knew what exactly was going on.

The same night, which was a Sunday, they came to my cell. As is all too common, under the pretense of conducting a cell search for contraband they handcuffed me and removed me from my cell, ordering me to walk to the front “quarterdeck” area (officers station), but as I did they suddenly pushed me into the empty shower cell at the front of the wing and as one held me from behind, the Sgt repeatedly slammed his fist into my stomach. With each blow the Sgt told me that if I told anything about what was going on on X-wing, I would go out in a body bag. And I truly did believe him.

Even though it was only a few moments, it seemed at the time that this assault went on forever. I’m not ashamed to say that I truly did believe them when they said that they would kill me if I told anything of what had happened. When I was finally led back to my cell I found all my property deliberately destroyed. I was not surprised. At the time, though, I was in extreme physical pain and I lay on my bunk staring at the ceiling. I knew better than to request medical assistance as I knew I would be attacked and beaten again.

But by the next morning I had no choice and told another Sgt that I needed to go to the clinic. The pain had not subsided and I was concerned that I might have suffered internal injuries. Reluctantly they day shift Sgt had me brought to the clinic and only then did I find out that both the Federal and State police had taken over the prison that morning after learning of Frank Valdez death.

As I sat in the holding cage at the clinic, I watched as one after another inmate with obvious physical trauma was escorted to the clinic by Federal agents. Soon I learned that the Federal and State police had done a wing by wing search of the prison, finding countless prisoners who had been assaulted by guards, then left in their cells without receiving any medical attention, including the four prisoners on X-wing who had been beaten daily and were found with broken bones and substantial injuries.

Never before had I seen Federal agents and State police take over a prison, especially a maximum security prison. By the next day pictures were taken of my own injuries – one of the pictures used on the front page of the Miami Herald in an article about the violence against prisoners at FSP.

That next night the Department of Corrections transferred those of us who had been targeted by the guards to the nearby North Florida Reception Center (NFRC) at lake Butler, where they kept us isolated from others under the pretense of “protective custody” but in truth they did this to keep us from talking to the media or anyone about what had happened. For almost two weeks I remained in an isolated cell at NFRC until my injuries were no longer so obvious and only then was I transferred to the death row unit at UCI and placed back among other prisoners.

In the flowing months the investigation into the systematic assault of prisoners at FSP resulted in the formal indictment (criminal charges) for murder against six of the guards directly involved in the attack that resulted in Valdez’s death, including Captain Thorton – one of the highest ranking officers at FSP, who, it was discovered, had personally participated in Frank Valdez murder!

Through legal council I filed a federal lawsuit against those who assaulted me as well as the FSP warden James Crosby, who had not only allowed, but had encouraged these guards to assault prisoners. Although it was discovered that during the 18 months that Crosby served as warden at FSP, there were at least 157 documented assaults upon prisoners rather than terminate his employment the governor (Jeb Bush) actually promoted James Crosby to Secretary of the entire Department of Corrections! Here Crosby remained until he was indicted in federal court for running a multi-million dollar criminal enterprise within the Florida Department of Corrections. Crosby subsequently pled guilty to the charges and is now serving an 8 year prison sentence at the Federal prison.

Although formally charged with the premeditated murder of Frank Valdez, the trial itself was a circus. The prosecutor Rod S. announced his plans to run for the State Senate – an election he knew he could not win without the support of the employees of the area’s prisons. Rod S. took the indicted guards to trial in Bradford County, a rural area with numerous prisons and it quickly became clear that he had no intention of actually convicting these guards of murdering a death row inmate. The jury then declared them “not guilty” and the guards walked free.

By late 2002 the State of Florida wanted to reach an out-of-court settlement on my pending lawsuit and I reluctantly agreed to accept a monetary settlement but only on condition that part of the settlement was that I would not be transferred back to Florida State Prison unless I was under an active death warrant and facing execution. The State agreed to that in writing and it was made part of the final federal court judgment entered in my favor.

But I should have known that the Department of Corrections remains as corrupt as the day is long, and they would not honor even a federal court judgment. Sure enough on Friday December 18, 2009 I was abruptly transferred back to Florida State Prison for no apparent reason. Already several guards, who worked also here at that time, have made a point of reminding me that they have not forgotten.. their implicit threat of retaliation was clear. Now, I can only hope to compel the Federal judge who presided over that earlier case to hold FDOC secretary McNeil in contempt of court for having me transferred back to FSP.

note:
Please read Mike's letter to Governor Crist that has been pubicly posted on his website
http://www.southerninjustice.com/

Part II to follow soon..

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ghosts of Christmas Past

In the world renowned classic Christmas story “The Christmas Carol”, crabby old Scrooge was visited upon by the Ghost of the Christmas Spirit. Perhaps this tale touches each of us in it’s own way as we too each find ourselves reflecting upon what once was and what might have been if only our lives had taken a different turn at a particular fork in the road at some point so many, many moons ago.

As I write this, it is Christmas day, 2009. A with each Christmas now for over a quarter of a century I sit in a solitary cell on Florida’s death row. It has become a world of loneliness and despair, of overwhelming sense of abandonment and regret that I have become only too familiar with – a virtual hell that neither body or mind can ever truly escape from as once one has descended into the “bowels of the beast” it becomes branded forever on your soul as a never ending nightmare that one will never awaken from.

But the manmade hell of steel and stone have become the only world that I know now and although the eternal nightmare is as constant as the sun rising with each day, on some days it becomes worse and today is one of those days. Today I will again struggle with the ghosts of Christmas and find myself tormented and haunted by what once was and what might have been, if only.

Growing up in a large family, Christmas as I remember was always a traditional event. I can still recall the anxiety of awaiting Santa Claus when I was a child and smile at the memories of threats of getting put on that feared “naughty” list. More often than not for getting caught eating the Holiday cookies and treats that were always prepared and laid out on the dining room table, supposedly for the guest that might visit – but they knew that us kids would find a way to sneak the treats just at that moment when no one was watching, then quickly retreat to a hidden corner to savor the fruit of our labor.

Along the fireplace mantle, stockings would hang empty, each with our names written in glittering gold and to the nearby corner would stand a brightly lit classic Christmas tree, with the antique ornaments and flashing colored lights and ribbon of silver and gold tinsel laced upon the evergreen branches – and the on top an angel with her fragile wings spread and angelic head bowed but always watching from above.

Each Christmas Eve the ritual would repeat itself. Each of us kids would invent excuses to stay up as long as possible but inevitably march off to bed for fear that Santa Claus would not come. And fight it off as we might soon enough we would surrender to exhaustion and slip off to sleep – only to be awoken in the early morning hours with that scream that every child anxiously awaited to hear – “Santa’s come, Santa’s come!!” and suddenly as if on cue all of us kids would jump from our beds and run into the living room and be ready to receive the gifts we waited so long for.

Only now, knowing what I did not know as a child when I still believed in the magical miracle that Christmas was do In now realize just how much my father struggled to preserve the sanctity of this sacred event. When I was still so young the family business was forced into bankruptcy and almost overnight we went from being a comfortable middle-class family in the suburbs of Marin County, California to living on welfare with ten kids crowded into a two bedroom farm house in rural central Florida.

But even when our whole world was turned upside down, Christmas remained the same. Looking back, I don’t know how dad did it. Although we more often than not did not get what we asked for, we were never disappointed with what we got. Now I can only smile and cherish the memories of what once was, and even to this day it brings joy to my heart when I picture all us kids gathered around that Christmas tree, each anxiously awaiting our name to be called as dad plucked one brightly wrapped gift from beneath the treat a time and by the time it was over all that could be heard was the ripping of paper and the unsuppressed excitement and joy of children that only Christmas can bring.

That was the Ghost of Christmas past, the warm memories of what once was but will never be again. Like a wisp of wind they are so quickly gone, replaced by the cold chill of the Ghost of Christmas present and the reality of where I am today.

Now I look around me on this Christmas day and I see only empty pale pastel walls around me. As I sit here in the early morning hours sipping at my barely warm cup of black coffee, there are no sounds of children or the magic of Christmas. It is just another day, a day most of us try to ignore as we don’t really want to remember that today is Christmas – and yet, how could we forget.

Christmas on death row wasn’t always so bleak. But with each year that passed those with nothing but malice and hate in their cold hearts have gone out of their way to take from us even the spirit of Christmas itself. When I first came to death row in early 1984 Christmas was something to look forward to, a time of the year when the true spirit of Christmas penetrated even the steel and stone walls of death row.

My first Christmas on death row surprised me as I did not expect the kindness and charity of those that came into the bowels of the beast to share with us. The prison would allow church volunteers to come in and then the condemned would be led in small groups into the visiting park (a large fully enclosed dining hall). A decorated Christmas tree would be put up and the tables would be laid out with all sorts of Christmas cookies and treats. Groups of church volunteers would sit in communion with the inmates for just a few moments but in those few moments the love in their hearts became the greatest gift of all. Just as quickly we would be rushed out so the next group could be brought in. As we were handcuffed and led back to our cells the voices of the volunteers could be heard singing Christmas carols, slowly fading away as we were led further and further down the main hall towards the solid steel door that would once again open up to swallow us as we descended back down into death row.

Back then our families and friends could send in two Christmas packages with items such as shoes, or winter clothes or maybe a good radio and like little children we anxiously awaited what Christmas would bring. Even the State itself would go out of its way to make Christmas special. On Christmas morning we would awake to find a bag of fruit with apples and oranges and grapes. Only on Christmas day would the whole wing awake so early and many of the radio’s would be turned in to a local station playing classic Christmas songs in which many of the men would shamelessly sing along. Up and down the floor men could be heard trading an apple for an orange, or whatever, and many would pass out candy bars bought from the canteen and the cold-blooded killers we supposedly were became cheerful Santa Clauses to those we lived among that became our only family.

By noon the holiday meal would arrive and the trustees and officers worked overtime to pass out what the kitchen had prepared, each tray overflowing with the traditional feast of turkey and stuffing with gravy and thick juicy slices of honey baked ham and cranberry sauce and yams and so much more. Then a second tray would be brought to each cell, loaded with generous slices of chocolate cake and pumpkin pie and small plastic cups of thick fudge and dried fruit cups and again the trading would begin as each of us did our best to bargain for our favorite foods and through the day we would each slowly savor every bite.

A few weeks before Christmas the prison canteen (store) would start selling real fruitcake and boxes of chocolate mints and chocolate covered cherries that quite literally melted in your mouth, and large bags of Christmas cookies and candy. Even those who had no money got something as most of us who had enough to buy a few treats looked out for those that had nothing as that’s how it was on death row back then.

But all of that is now long gone. Each little piece of what Christmas once was stripped away until nothing remained. Each year something else was taken. Most often under the pretense of “security” concerns as those who wanted prisoners to suffer invented excuses to impose their malice upon us – especially at Christmas.

What little now remains is but a shadow of what once was. They still allow volunteers to come in as they attempt to share the spirit of Christmas with us, but no longer are we allowed sitting in momentary communion with them. The few treats they are still allowed to share with us are now brought to us at our cells, but each year they are allowed to share less and less. Today is Christmas and yet it is not. There are those who would reach out with Christian compassion and charity to the condemned on this holiest of days, but they are no longer allowed to do so.

Death row has become a different place and no longer is the spirit of Christmas among the condemned. Now each of us in our own way tries to ignore the day altogether. It would be only too easy to say that I myself have become bitter and perhaps that is true. When a man spends a quarter of a century in a solitary cell then bitterness becomes inevitably. I’d like to think that I’m stronger than that but I suppose no man is.

But this really is not about me or what I’ve become as I’m not responsible for the deprivation of even the smallest act of Christian charity that has come to define death row today. Rather, this is about what we have become as a society today, where it is now no longer enough to condemn a man to death for the alleged transgression he or she might have committed. Now as a society we thrive on making the prisoner needlessly suffer and reward politicians who invent ways to inflict even greater deprivation upon those we imprison.

What I speak of today is not about me, but about what we have become as a society. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that when a man spends his life fighting monsters, his greatest fear should not be the monster itself, but should be of becoming the monster himself. When we as a society can no longer find that measure of mercy and compassion in our hearts that presumably defined us as a Christian nation, then inevitably we will awake one day to realize that the monster that we once claimed to fight now stares back at us in our mirror. Even as much as I now might be deprived of, it is we as a society that is deprived of so much more.