Monday, March 22, 2010

Florida Adopts in your Face Executions

I have been on Florida’s death row now well over a quarter of a century and in these many years I’ve been an indirect and involuntary witness to more executions than I can count. Most of those who were methodically murdered by the state were men that I came to know well through years of living in close proximity of each other and became close to as of we were all part of a large extended family.

In the past I have written many stories about executions from my own perspective, mostly talking about the man who was put to death, to remind those who might read my words that the man was a unique person with value as a fellow human being. It’s often just too easy to see only what we want to see and in the case of those we condemn to death, perhaps it is too convenient to believe that this person was nothing more than a monster and we deny any redeeming quality.

But each of those individuals did possess that measure of humanity that gives their life meaning. Each had family and friends that cared for them and will now grieve at their death. No matter what the nature of the alleged crime was that they were led them to the execution chamber, they still each laughed and cried like all of us do and if only we could miraculously remove that momentary transgression that resulted in another death, than most of those would be no different than those we live among in our communities.

Yesterday the state of Florida put Martin Grossman to death. Those of us who knew him called him “Eddie” He had been on Florida’s death row almost as long as I have and through the years I came to know him as a generous and giving individual, who did not hesitate to share what little he had with others around him.

Eddie was a good natured guy with a quick sense of humor. He had a way of making others around him laugh and if only for a few moments forget about the hellhole we live in. His character possessed a quiet and respectful sense of integrity that those who knew him came to respect. Although kind of a big guy, he was never a bully and he stood up for the little guy on many occasions.

It bothers me that the world judges him only by the alleged crime that led him to death row. Even assuming that he did what the state claimed, the objective facts establish that he was a troubled teenager who, while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, spontaneously responded to an event that led to the death of the law enforcement officer (a game warden). But did he go out and commit a deliberate act of murder? I just don’t think so.

Now Eddie is gone and he will be missed. But there’s something about the execution of Eddie that really bothers me, and I think would bother anyone of moral conscience. This execution was unlike any other that I’ve seen carried out and reflects what can only be described as a sickness that has no place in any so-called civilized society.

I spent many hours. Long into the night last night trying to find a way to put into words why I found the ritual of Eddie’s execution so offensive. In the many, many years that I’ve been on death row, when the state did carry out executions, it has always been the policy of the prison administrators to maintain as much of a “normal” routine inside the prison as possible. Wardens painstakingly made a point of minimizing any reminders that an execution was being carried out. Of course we all knew that on the next wing over they were methodically putting a man to death, a man that each of us personally knew. But by maintaining a daily routine, it was something we could detach from in a way and not be forced to deal with. But now for the first time ever Florida has adopted in-your-face executions where all the prisoners of Florida State Prison are now effectively forced to involuntarily participate in these ritualistic executions.

I’m certainly not the only one who found this new policy offensive and inhumane – a number of prison staff even attempted to take the day off just so they would not have to participate, but were told they could not.

What made yesterday’s execution completely different from any other that I’ve seen carried out in all the years I have been here is how the new warden of Florida State Prison went out of his way to make this an all day event. Up until now those who ran he prison had enough sense and humanity to know that forcing other prisoners to be reminded of what was going on, and making them unwilling participants, could only cause a lot of tension and anxiety among the prison population and could contribute to possible escalations and even violence.

But unlike before, when any change of routine was minimized, yesterday all the staff was ordered to dress up in their dress uniforms, typically only worn when a visiting dignitary was inspecting the troops. That meant wearing neckties and spotless uniforms and polished boots. Although to those unfamiliar with the daily grind of prison life that might not seem like such a big deal, it actually is the only time in almost 30 years of being a prisoner in the Florida State system that I’ve ever seen the rank and file staff ordered to wear their dress uniforms all day while working the cellblock areas. Then they brought breakfast about two hours early, and then lunch was later that morning and dinner by early afternoon. By late afternoon the circus became even more obvious when we were told that the whole institution was on lockdown and they would not do the showers until they were told restricted movement had been lifted, also mail would not be delivered until after the execution. All this served to force every one of us to stand by and become an involuntary participant to this execution.

From early in the morning, throughout the day and into the early evening each of us was forced to confront the imminent execution they intended to carry out. That caused a substantial, even tangible tension on the wing. But as I said, it wasn’t just us in the cellblocks that found this execution process troubling as many of the officers working here also wanted no part of it. And yet we were all forced to go along with it just because one man at the top found it necessary to make a circus out of an execution, even finally announcing on the radio (closed circuit radio system allowing communication within the prison) that the execution had been carried out and it was alright to resume “normal activity”.

Michael Lambrix
Death row Florida

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Welcome to the Jungle - part II

Recently I wrote a blog article entitled “Welcome to the Jungle” which described the environment I have recently been cast down upon. Florida State Prison has an especially brutal history as over the years it earned its reputation as the “Alcatraz of the South” This history is well documented in court records, such as Valdez v. Crosby,450 F.3d. 1231 (11th Cir. 2006). Anyone who might doubt the claims that I make should simply read that Federal Court case, which describes how gangs of prison guards systematically preyed upon prisoners with complete impunity, brutalizing prisoners for no other reason but that they could.

Countless other Federal Court cases document the history of extreme violence towards prisoners at Florida State Prison. I myself have been subjected to brutal beatings by these guards on two separate occasions. I then too the case to Federal Court, attempting to sue the guards responsible only to have the Federal Court obstruct my ability to litigate the case, forcing me to accept a “settlement” in which the state of Florida paid me substantial amounts of money to drop the case.

But the guards who assault prisoners are never held personally accountable. Any monetary award is paid by the State. Incredibly, many times guards who have histories of assaulting prisoners are promoted within the Department of Corrections, rising through the ranks until they become the supervisor and even the wardens, and then they too turn a blind eye to the guards who attack prisoners and the cycle continues.

When a prisoner complains of being assaulted will be investigated by the Department of Correction’s own “inspectors”, under the supervision of the FDOC Inspector General Paul Becker. To illustrate the truth of what I write, a person who needs to look at Paul Becker’s own career within the Florida Dept of Corrections. “Top cop” Paul Decker is responsible for appointing other FDOC employees as the lower level “investigators” or “inspectors” who then investigate individual allegations of prisoner’s assaults. But what few know is that Paul Decker himself rose through the ranks at Florida State Prison and worked directly under the FSP warden James Crosby during the years graphically illustrated in Valdez v Crosby, 450 F3d 1231 (11th Cir. 2006) and was personally the supervisor over the guards who beat countless prisoners at Florida State Prison.

This is the culture of corruption that defines the Florida Department of Corrections. As a prisoner I have watched as one Governor after another publicly promised to clean up the corruption in the Department, bringing in a Director from out of state under the pretense that an “outsider” will not be corrupted by any career alliances to others in the FDOC. But without exception, the new FDOC “secretary” (Director) will immediately appoint only those long time ‘good ole boys” from within the Dept of Corrections to positions such as Inspector General who are responsible for enforcing the law within Florida’s prison system. I have seen this same cycle repeated over and over again and have come to believe that nobody really wants to stop the epidemic of violence in prisons as the American public and elected politicians do not have the moral integrity it takes to be outraged by these actions.

My first experience in personally witnessing the violence of prison guards was in the summer of 1982 when I was incarnated at baker Correctional, a maximum security prison in the adjacent county north of Florida State Prison. The compound erupted into a free-for-all riot in which hundreds of prisoners took control of the institution. Numerous staff members were assaulted and within hours vans full of guards from surrounding prisons flooded into the parking lot and quickly organized into military formation, wearing riot gear and then marching into the compound, taking back control within a few hours. But taking back control was not enough. They wanted to avenge their fellow officers who were assaulted. It didn’t matter whether those who were singled out for retaliation actually had anything to do with the riot at all, as all that mattered was that someone – anyone – was held accountable. Throughout the evening and into the night the entire prison was terrorized by gangs of guards who randomly pulled out one prisoner after the other from their cells and brought them up to the “admin building” where they were brought handcuffed and blindfolded and forced to walk down a long hallway lined with guards, and the guards would brutally beat each prisoner as they passed by, then load them into a transport van and move them to either Florida State Prison or Union Correctional institution.

Formal complaints were filed with federal agents at the Justice Department and within a few months the guards who were responsible were indicted on federal charges, then brought to trial as “the Baker Eight”, They had a right to a jury trial (which I fully support) but nobody was surprised when the Jacksonville jury acquitted all 8 of them of all charges. A few years later I came to Florida State Prison under sentence of death. One of the first guards I saw was one of the infamous “Baker Eight”. After being acquitted of assaulting at least 20 inmates following the riot, the FDOC promoted him to Lieutenant and put him in charge of supervising other officers at Florida State Prison. This is just one of the many examples of promoting an FDOC employee with a history of assaulting prisoners. The unspoken tragedy of all this is the undeniable consequences of this culture of corruption. If the correctional officers who wear the badge of law enforcement will not respect that badge they wear, then why should any prisoner respect it?

In the many years that I have been imprisoned I have seen this cycle of violence repeat itself again and again. It is not just a coincidence that assaults upon guards and staff have significantly increased following a similar increase in reported assaults upon prisoners by guards. As long as I can remember it has been said that any angry man will hurt you - a scared man will kill you. If only these guards who participate in these acts of violence against prisoners would just stop and think about it, they’d realize that they are investing in inevitable acts of future violence against them, and other innocent people.

What I must emphasize is that it is actually only a small percentage of guards who will get involved in this violence. See, that’s the difference between a prison guard and a correctional officer. Although they both wear the same badge, they are cut of different cloth. A correctional officer is someone whose work has earned the respect of those he or she works with as well as the prisoners, as he has proven that he is a professional and possesses that measure of moral character necessary to rise above the daily grind of this zoo. But a guard will never amount to anything more than a guard, even if he is promoted up through the ranks to the highest level of the Department of Corrections, as the person is just as much a violent career criminal as those who are imprisoned.

Some might say that I’m making myself a target by speaking out against this epidemic of violence against prisoners here at Florida’s State Prison. But I am already a target and I will be as long as I remain at this prison. For me it is a matter of principle. I truly believe in what Abraham Lincoln once said: that evil can only triumph when good men choose do nothing. Each one of us has a moral obligation to speak out against any evil around us – especially when that evil only exists because of the abuse of power entrusted upon them by “we the people”, which is the system of government we live under. I do not invite violence against myself. But I will not conceal my contempt for those that do participate in these assaults – and as a matter of principle I will never remain silent when a prisoner is being abused around me.

America has taken it upon itself to be the model of basic human rights. But increasingly we are being exposed internationally as the arrogant hypocrites that we are, and all because of a very small number of morally corrupt individuals who give the rest of us a bad name. But in truth it is those at the highest level of our state and federal government that are ultimately responsible for compromising the perception of our moral values as a nation if conscience. When those empowered under the color of state are free to abuse that power with complete impunity then the malignancy of corruption becomes absolutely inevitable.

The time is long overdue for those in power to systematically weed out these few guards who are responsible for the vast majority of assaults against prisoners. I know that there are many correctional officers within the Florida Department of Corrections who feel as I do and would gladly be rid of those guards that give them all a bad name. But as long as these guards with a known history of violence are being promoted rather than prosecuted, this cycle of violence will never stop.

Michael Lambrix
Death Row Florida