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Ex-warden takes blame for not following protocol in pepper spraying inmate at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution

ZEPHYRHILLS — The dispute started over the quality of peanut butter at the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution.

An inmate complained the peanut butter was too oily. Then he vented about other conditions as Warden Sammy Hill and the prison administrators made their rounds through the wing.

The warden told the inmate to calm down. The inmate hurled obscenities and racial epithets at Hill, who is black. Other inmates became riled up.

On the warden's orders, according to witness accounts, the guard spritzed the inmate with Sabre Red pepper spray.

Then last month, several months after the July 2009 incident, Hill tendered his resignation after investigators called his judgment into question.

Not because he told the guard to spray the inmate.

Because no one taped it.

• • •

Florida Department of Corrections protocol requires prison personnel to use a handheld video camera to document any "non-spontaneous" uses of force.

Before using force to subdue an inmate who is being disobedient but not creating an imminent threat, guards are supposed to videotape the problem behavior. The guard's order to stop the behavior as well as the use of force itself should also be recorded.

"It really protects the inmate to make sure it was done appropriately," Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said. "It also protects the officers in case there are allegations later."

And the tapes are reviewed to make sure procedures were properly followed.

In this case, however, no one taped anything until 1:16 p.m. July 27, more than an hour after the inmate was hit with pepper spray, according to the Inspector General's report released Wednesday.

On the recording, Capt. Robert Calhoun says he was ordered to use the spray to get the inmate back in line. He said the inmate had showered and was examined by medical staff while his cell was being cleaned.

A few minutes later, the inmate was taken back to his cell and the camera was turned off.

• • •

The Department of Corrections withheld the name of the inmate involved in the incident and wouldn't say why he was in prison.

According to witness accounts in the Inspector General's report, he unleashed the n-word while yelling at Hill and other prison administrators who are black.

"I know that you shouldn't talk the way that I did, but that's all it was," the inmate later wrote in a statement about the incident.

The inmate was by himself in a locked cell when the incident happened. But the scene created a stir in the wing, according to witness statements, and other prisoners began yelling.

Plessinger said the use of force under such circumstances was allowed.

In some instances, she said, an inmate creates a disturbance as a decoy to distract the guards while something worse goes down in another cell. On other occasions, she said, the altercation can spark a larger problem.

"Oftentimes it can get other inmates in an uproar, and very quickly you have a situation that's difficult to contain," she said.

• • •

As the Inspector General for the Department of Corrections examined the incident, Hill submitted a one-sentence letter Feb. 4 announcing his retirement.

At age 58, he was leaving the department he had served for 36 years. A new warden, Gustavo Mazorra, was tapped to lead the Zephyrhills facility that houses 680 inmates and staffs more than 250 workers.

Calhoun, the guard who said he sprayed the inmate on the warden's orders, also retired, Plessinger said.

In his written statement, Hill said he didn't order the pepper-spraying — he simply told the guard that if the disruption continued, he should follow procedure and use the spray.

When Hill later reviewed the incident, as is required when an inmate is pepper-sprayed, he determined the guard followed the proper procedure — even though the incident wasn't properly documented, Plessinger said.

"They did not follow procedure," she said.

Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at bgrumet@sptimes.com.

Ex-warden takes blame for not following protocol in pepper spraying inmate at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution 03/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 3, 2010 9:06pm]
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