Embattled Florida prisons impose new rules on use of force

Under intense scrutiny over allegations of prison abuse, the Florida Department of Corrections has imposed new restrictions on when force can be used on inmates and how officers have to document the situations.

The new rules require the video recording of all applications of noxious chemicals on inmates, from the beginning of the incident until the end. They also mandate someone other than those staffers involved with a use of force elicit the statement from the inmate who was the subject of that force.

"We simply want to ensure that the reporting of use-of-force incidents by all parties, both participants and witnesses, is as complete as possible," said McKinley Lewis, communications director for the Florida Department of Corrections.

The new rules came about after an audit by the Association of State Correctional Administrators of the system's use-of-force practices. The audit, released in September, was ordered up after the Herald reported that use of force had doubled in the Florida prison system over a five-year span.

Among the audit findings:

Inmates sometimes didn't give statements, which raised the question of whether they felt doing so would endanger them.

Many use-of-force incidents reported were "unplanned" and not recorded.

Staffing shortages continued to plague the agency.

The memo with new provisions went to all wardens Oct. 23.

"Use-of-force incidents in the Florida Department of Corrections are at a five-year low," Lewis said in an e-mail to the Herald. "To continue in this trend, and to ensure that our agency maintains use-of-force policies that are in line with national best practices, Deputy Secretary Ricky Dixon recently issued a directive regarding the implementation of new and revised use-of-force policies."

The rules stipulate corrections officers who witness a colleague employing force on a prisoner must give a full, detailed statement on what he or she saw, rather than say, "I witnessed it but wasn't involved," as sometimes happens now.

The new protocols require that any corrections officer involved in three "reactionary" uses of force over a six-month period be flagged administratively and interviewed by the institution's warden. This is a change from the previous policy when it took eight or more incidents over an 18-month span.

Also instituted was a ban on using force on inmates who are allegedly trying to harm themselves -- except in the most "extreme" instances.