Those familiar with my blog articles already know that I’m a prisoner on Florida’s death row. In Florida, death sentenced prisoners spend everyday in a small concrete cell by ourselves, with minimal human contact. The only time we are allowed out of our cells is when we get a legal or social visit, or a medical callout, or supposedly we are allowed to go outside to the recreational yard for two hours twice a week. I say supposedly because more often then not death sentenced prisoners are routinely denied any opportunity to go to the rec yard for no other reason but the games the guards play to deny regular yard.
To fully explain this problem I must first tell you some of the history relevant to recreational activity for death row prisoners in Florida. Florida has a long and well documented history of being the “cesspool” of the prison system, and the abuse of prisoners by the guards is systematic. As the former Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC )Secretary (director) Walter McDonough repeatedly said in published newspaper articles, a pervasive “culture of corruptions” exists within the Florida Department of Corrections in which the guars hired to work in the prison are themselves all too often nothing less than “criminals and thugs” , hired only because their father or uncle worked for the FDOC, there is rampant abuse of prisoners, systematic misconduct and a complete absence of professionalism in which supervisory staff simply refuse to “put a leash” on guards who are out of control.
All too often, those guards who do engage in abuse of prisoners at Florida State Prison are actually rewarded with promotions and favorable shifts schedules, effectively encouraging similar misconduct among all staff.
Abuse of prisoners come in many forms, and is not always so easily seen as when a prisoner is brutally beaten to death – as was the case of Frank Valdez See, Valdez v. Crosby, 450 F.3d.1231 (11th Cr 2006) (graphically describing the assaults upon prisoners, including the murder of Frank Valdez by guards known to have a history of similar violence against prisoners at Florida State Prison)
One particular form of abuse often inflicted upon death row prisoners is the deliberate deprivation of adequate outdoor recreation. It doesn’t take a medical degree to appreciate the importance of getting sunlight. Some of you might recall the movie “Brubaker”, where a new prison warden is assigned to clean up the abuse in a southern prison and takes a trip to the unit for death row prisoners. When the warden (played by Robert Redford) goes into the unit he finds that the prisoners had not been allowed outside for years. The movie then shows the warden passing out sunglasses to the inmates and ordering their cell doors open as he personally leads them out into a rec yard. Many of the prisoners are blinded by the sunlight and can barely even stagger outside.
In Florida State Prison ever hired a warden like that, committed to basic human treatment, that scene could easily had been filmed here on Florida’s death row, where many of the men have not been allowed to go outside in many years, often denied yard time for no reason but that they dared to complain.
About 30 years ago it took federal court intervention to even compel Florida prison officials to provide minimal outdoor recreation to Florida’s death row inmates. That was done through a federal “class action” lawsuit known as Dougan v Duggan and it allowed the federal court to monitor the recreation provided. Even when the Department of Corrections entered into a settlement, agreeing to provide the prisoners a minimum of 4 hours of outdoor recreation per week, the federal court subsequently had to hold prison officials here at Florida State Prison in ‘contempt of court’ when they routinely acted in deliberate bad faith by canceling outdoor recreation on a regular base and routinely denying the death row prisoners their yard time for years at a time.
Only after prison officials were held in actual contempt of court for refusing to comply with their binding “consent decree” to provide a minimum of minimum 4 hours or outside recreation per week, did things finally get better and we started to receive regular yard time.
But then in 1996 the federal congress passed the “Prisoner Litigation Reform act” (PLRA) which passed federal laws prohibiting the Florida courts from continuing oversight of prison conditions if prison officials established they were in compliance. Not long after this Florida prison officials moved to dismiss the federal lawsuit overseeing death row recreation, claiming they were in compliance and the Federal court had no choice but to dismiss the case, relieving Florida State Prison of any further oversight.
It had been about ten years now since the “Dougan v Duggan” Federal class action lawsuit was dismissed because of the PLRA. And once again Florida State Prison is back to playing the same games that compelled Federal Court intervention back then. When it comes down to it, given the virtual absence of professionalism among staff in Florida’s prison system, the only way to compel Florida’s prison officials to follow long established law governing the basic treatment of prisoners is to have the Federal courts watch over them and hold them in contempt of court if they refuse.
About 3 months ago I was transferred back from the main death row unit of Union Correctional Institution to Florida State Prison’s secondary death row unit. Since I have been back over here at FSP, I have personally witnessed this systematic abuse of prisoners, especially by the guards assigned to work the death row yard.
Theoretically, all death row prisoners are entitled to go to the rec yard twice a week for two hours each time, for a total of (maximum) of four hours per week. But Sergeant Strong, who runs the rec yard, doesn’t think death sentenced prisoners should have any rec yard at all. Sgt Strong abuses his authority by routinely refusing prisoners their rec yard time. Not surprisingly, he has a long history of alleged abuse of prisoners and was only promoted to being the yard Sgt after inmates filed grievances that he was involved in numerous physical assaults upon these prisoners.
Myself, I like to get out to the recreation yard at least once a week even though I’m no longer able to participate in volleyball or basketball due to a military injury that left me physically disabled. But at least I can go outside for a few hours and walk around and talk to other prisoners and get some much needed sunlight.
However, in the 12 weeks that I have been back here at Florida State Prison, Sgt Strong. has only allowed me to go out to the rec yard 3 times. The first week I was here he told me point blank that he wasn’t going to pull me for rec yard because I had filed a lawsuit years ago against other guards here for physically abusing me and others. He then told me that the next time I “will go out in a box like Valdez”. Frank Valdez was the death row prisoner that was beaten to death by guards at this prison in July 1999. See Valdez v. Crosby,450 F.3d 1231 (11th Cr.2006) I’ve never been one to back down from a coward, so I wrote Sgt Strong. up for refusing my yard and threatening my life.
Of course the warden of FSP took virtually no action, even though numerous other prisoners have filed similar complaints against this sergeant. But then, we don’t expect much out of this warden as he is a “good ole boy” who has a long history of turning a blind eye to inmate abuse. This warden is part of the “culture of corruption” and he will do whatever it takes to cover for his guards even when the evidence is overwhelming.
For weeks after that Sgt Strong invented one excuse after another to deny me my rec yard time. Last week I was able to go out only because the wing Sgt put me down on the rec yard list – but again this week I was denied yard, this time because I had written up a grievance against Sgt Strong last week and so he told me I’m not going to rec because I wrote him up.
My own experience is not unique – routinely all death row prisoners are denied red yard by Sgt Strong as he deliberately abuses his power. Often we are written down as “refused yard” because Sgt Strong found some petty reason to deny yard, such as the bunk was not properly made, or the cell light was not on, or a cup was on the sink. But consistently what it really comes down to is that Sgt Strong doesn’t think death sentenced prisoners should have any rec time. And if you do complain to the warden of FSP, he will not listen – and Sgt Strong will then threaten us with physical assault and even death for writing him up.
Once again we must now file a new Federal lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, compelling the Federal court to intervene and monitor our ability to get outdoor rec time. This will now undoubtedly cost Florida taxpayers a substantial amount of money, and for what? Because the warden refuses to address a problem and take appropriate action to ensure that we are provided with adequate rec time.
I would like to ask each of you to email FDOC secretary McNeil or Warden Singer of FSP and ask them to look into the matter. Attach a copy of this blog with your email so they can read it too.
Walter McNeil FDOC Secretary email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Warden Singer, Florida State Prison email address: email@example.com
Florida Death Row