Talking at the table? Teen offenders don’t get to eat because of it

Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, walks with the former warden at Suwannee Correctional, Thomas Reid, during a tour of the facility that handles overflow in the state’s prison population of juvenile offenders.
Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, walks with the former warden at Suwannee Correctional, Thomas Reid, during a tour of the facility that handles overflow in the state’s prison population of juvenile offenders. Courtesy of David Richardson

It was lunch time and the newly arrived teenage inmates had just filed into the mess hall at Sumter Correctional Institution, sat down with their lunch trays and began eating. Some of them started talking — just like the inmates who’d been there longer were doing at nearby tables.

But their supervising officer considered the newbies disruptive. He warned them. They continued. Within minutes, Officer Alexander was ordering the nearly 15 inmates to stand up and dump their lunch trays in the trash. He then ordered them back into their dorm.

That’s where state Rep. David Richardson, a Democrat from Miami Beach, found them. 

Richardson was at the Central Florida prison in Bushnell on one of his routine visits to the state’s largest male youthful offender programs. Richardson randomly selected six of the 14- to 17-year-olds to speak with him and, one-by-one, started asking questions.

“How’s your day going?” Richardson said he asked.

“Not very good,” was the reply. “We were just at the lunch room and a couple of people were talking and the guard told us to go and dump all our food in the trash.”

All six inmates identified Alexander as responsible. The agency, citing the ongoing investigation, would not reveal Alexander’s first name or any other information about him.

Depriving inmates of food is against the law in Florida’s prisons but when it happens, it rarely gets reported. Richardson complained and FDC responded immediately. They removed Alexander from contact with the inmates who had been in prison less than three weeks. The inmates were supplied with another tray of food, and FDC opened an investigation to determine what discipline to take against Alexander.

“All officers on duty were counseled that withholding food can never be utilized as a form of discipline and that the department and facility will not condone it,” said Michelle Glady, FDC spokesperson.

But the issue has raised new questions about Florida’s troubled prison system where change is happening slowly. In the past month, a riot broke out at Franklin Correctional Institution, destroying one dorm. And tensions continue to mount as dangerous levels of under-staffing hobble the agency in the wake of the Legislature’s decision to give the department funding for only 215 of the 734 additional staff it sought.

“I am proud of the swift action taken, but I wonder if I had not been present if the incident would have been disclosed?” Richardson later asked on his Facebook page. “Unfortunately, we still have a few bad officers, and they taint the integrity of the department and all the fine officers who serve our state with distinction.”

For nearly a year, Richardson has been on a mission — to privately visit and personally investigate youthful offender prisons. He selects inmates randomly and then meets with them privately, looking for bruises on their faces and arms to let them know he is checking up on how they are treated.

At Sumter, Richardson has twice reported Alexander for assaulting inmates. “But it was in a one-on-one situation in a back room, so there’s no witness,” Richardson told the Herald/Times in two recent interviews.

Richardson has documented and confirmed cases of staff-on-inmate abuse as well as inmate-on-inmate abuse. He has compiled a list of officers he urged FDC staff to monitor for being abusive and provided names of officers to investigate.

And he has made recommendations, such as suggesting that youthful offenders should not be allowed to sleep in cells containing more than two inmates to prevent gang-related violence and abuse, and closing Lancaster Correctional to youthful offenders.

Faced with Richardson’s litany of complaints and the agency’s own findings, FDC Secretary Julie Jones agreed to close Lancaster to inmates under age 17, and it was closed in May. She replaced the warden at Sumter last month, as well as his top four deputies. 

When Richardson arrived last week to tour Sumter, he was briefed on an assault June 18 by an officer on an inmate and was told that rather than let the officer beat up the teen, three other officers stepped in to stop him. The agency is now pressing charges, he said.

“It’s becoming clear that if you assault anyone in the youthful offender program, you’re going to be found out,” Richardson said. But last week’s incident was a setback.

“What I’m concerned about now is, while we have reduced the number of assaults, are we now going to see other tactics used, like denying food,” he said. “I’m satisfied with the pace of change, but I’m looking for more improvement.”

Richardson blames the incidents of abuse on “the culture of the agency” and he is convinced Jones is trying to change that.

“The secretary is trying to turn around a battleship in a swimming pool,’’ he said.

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

It’s a law

Here is the state law forbidding the withholding of food in prisons as punishment.

Chapter 33-204.003(2)(e) (Food Services; Standards of Operation):

(e) Food shall not be withheld, nor the standard menu varied, as a disciplinary sanction or as a reward for good behavior or work for an individual inmate.