RAIFORD — When the family began to sing "like a bird from prison bars, I'll fly away," the four inmates stopped packing dirt on the new grave and listened.
On this day in late May, more than a dozen voices in perfect harmony wafted across a vast field where thousands of unclaimed Florida inmates are buried, their graves marked by metal license plates.
This one reads: "Jeremiah Thomas, 190479, DOD 5/16/10."
"We are burying Jeremiah on prison property because the Florida Department of Corrections had my son for 21 years and is responsible for him," Maxime Thomas, 62, told weeping family members who had come from Texas, Virginia and South Florida for the graveside service.
"With his death, the cruelty must stop," the father said.
To a large part, it already had — thanks to a court case with Thomas' name on it. In January 2009, a federal judge in Jacksonville agreed with Thomas, another inmate and their lawyers that it was "cruel and unusual punishment" to gas severely mentally ill inmates at Florida State Prison for behavior beyond their control.
The suit, filed by Florida Institutional Legal Services in Gainesville, Holland and Knight in Jacksonville and the Florida Justice Institute in Miami, asked that "malicious and sadistic gassing" at FSP not take place without a mental health consultation first, and that Thomas and others be awarded damages for deep burns, respiratory problems and other illnesses caused by repeated use of tear gas, mace and pepper spray.
The state's position was that corrections officers "had ample penological justification" for gassing Thomas to "control the prison environment and to maintain safety."
But U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Corrigan sided with Thomas, noting that between 2000 and 2003 he suffered from "first- to third-degree burns on his back, abdomen, arms, elbows and buttocks of such severity that (medical staff) considered referring Thomas to a special burn unit for treatment."
Thomas got a $10,000 settlement. The state appealed the judge's decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
In the meantime, inmates at correctional facilities across the state have told Thomas' attorneys — who routinely represent inmates — that there's a marked decrease in the gassing of mentally ill prisoners. Corrections officials would not talk about whether there are changes.
On May 20, four days before appellate oral arguments, guards discovered Thomas, 38, in critical condition in his cell at Union Correctional Institution. That same day, he was moved to a corrections medical center in Lake Butler and from there to Jacksonville Memorial Hospital, where he died that night.
While waiting for autopsy results, Thomas' father asked the funeral director in Lake Butler to take photos of his son.
"Did mistreatment or neglect cause Jeremiah's death? That's what we'd like to know," Maxime Thomas said. "Because he was tortured with chemical agents for years … you can understand why we're suspicious."
In 1979, at age 7, Jeremiah Thomas moved to Fort Lauderdale from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, with his parents and younger sister, Vicky. According to his sister, he was a good student. He was also a strong swimmer and loved to sing hymns.
"We were a nice, upstanding family. Nobody could see what was coming," said Vicky Thomas, 35, a Dallas hospital administrator.
In eighth grade after his mother died, Jeremiah was suspended for getting in a fight. The next time he got in trouble at age 17, he accompanied an 18-year-old friend on a parking lot mugging. Thomas shot the victim and got 30 years for second-degree murder.
Within two years of going to prison in 1991, he had a string of disciplinary writeups for spitting at guards and throwing coffee at them. He was put in solitary confinement at Florida State Prison, the harshest prison in the state.
Corrections medical records show a rapid downward spiral. From the 1995 record: "Auditory hallucinations and impaired thought process. Acutely agitated, eating his feces, pouring urine on his hands."
By 1996, Jeremiah Thomas was in a vicious cycle of mental breakdowns and punishment — from FSP solitary where he was gassed to a mental health cell at Union Correctional Institution to be stabilized, then back to FSP, only to be gassed again.
"He was very afraid of being at FSP," said his cousin John Logan, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, who came from Virginia for the funeral.
By 2000, Thomas had attempted suicide numerous times by shredding towels to hang himself. His knuckles were permanently misshapen from punching walls.
"He wrote us that he was too sad to live," said his sister, Vicky.
She received a final letter in early April, six weeks before his death. In what she took to be a desperate attempt to find something positive to tell her, he wrote, "I'm enjoying life by breathing."
Now, she says, she wonders if he was acutely aware of breathing because he was having difficulty getting his breath. In the past, gas had exacerbated his asthma.
"Because of his mental illness, it's hard to know what was code for trouble," she said.
The medical examiner's report, which was released May 31, said that Thomas died of bronchopneumonia. There was no indication of abuse. But his father and stepmother, Imani Thomas, are perplexed.
"A 38-year-old man dies of something treatable with antibiotics? How could this happen?" asked Imani, who is a lawyer.
The Department of Corrections said it couldn't talk about the case because of medical privacy laws.
After inmates finished digging Thomas' grave, the six children in his family played tag, zig-zagging in and out of the rows.
"Nice to see some life here," said corrections Officer John Thompson.
Pointing to a small blue canister on Thompson's belt, Jeremiah's half-brother Lorenzo, 11, said, "Is that pepper spray? My brother got pepper-sprayed a lot."
"Don't go there," said Maxime Thomas. "Not here, not now."
Before the gray casket was closed and lowered into the scabrous soil, the father leaned over his son's face and wept.
"At least my son is making a huge difference," he said.
Meg Laughlin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8068.