1. Archive

A second place for troublemakers

When death row inmate Frank Valdes died last month after a violent confrontation with prison guards, he was living on an isolated corridor of Florida State Prison known as the home of the electric chair and the worst of the worst of Florida's inmates.

Valdes' death on X Wing sparked a criminal investigation and a debate over how much force guards should use to subdue unruly prisoners. It also prompted prison officials to announce plans to mount cameras on the walls there.

But there is another wing at Florida State Prison that is almost identical. It, too, is a place where guards send troublemakers to be disciplined, where prisoners are held in tiny, dimly lit cells and often served "special management meals" _ food that can't be used as a weapon because, as the warden says, it is designed to bounce off guards like Play-doh.

And though it has received no publicity, a review of state records shows that guards there use force against inmates far more often than anywhere else in Florida's most secure prison.

It is called B Wing, a solitary confinement unit with 96 9-by-6-foot cells stacked three high.

Unlike X Wing, which has 30 cells, there is no immediate plan to mount cameras on B Wing.

Yet, of 142 incidents in which guards reported using force against inmates from January 1998 through June 1999, 53 occurred on B Wing, records show. That's compared with four incidents on X Wing.

(Those statistics do not include several incidents of alleged brutality on X Wing that occurred in July: Valdes died there and law enforcement officials are investigating allegations that guards beat several other prisoners who had been transferred to X Wing for allegedly assaulting guards at Hamilton Correctional Institution.)

For months, prisoners on B Wing have made the same type of allegations that prompted the criminal investigation of incidents on X Wing.

Records show that prisoners there repeatedly complained that guards beat up rule-breakers and then denied medical care. They said they were choked, kneed and punched in shower cells or strip cells even after they were restrained and helpless.

"They tried to murder me," inmate Vincent Rivera told medical staff after receiving sutures for a head wound during a violent confrontation with guards in July 1998.

Rivera was in a discipline cell for "disruptive" behavior. Officers said he mouthed off to a guard and kicked him in the shin when the officer tried to take the handcuffed inmate from the cell.

Rivera later refused to cooperate with prison investigators looking into the incident.

No case of abuse on B Wing has been substantiated in the past 18 months, according to prison records reviewed by the Times. The same is true of X Wing.

Nevertheless, James Crosby, the warden at Florida State Prison, says he suspected problems on B Wing.

"I knew B Wing was a hot spot. B Wing was much hotter than X Wing," said Crosby. "I moved (some) officers off of B wing because of the large number of allegations."

Crosby said cameras should be placed in B Wing _ and throughout the prison. He said a plan is being developed to do just that.

But some feel that disciplinary units like X and B wings need to be done away with altogether.

Peter M. Siegel, an attorney for the Florida Justice Institute in Miami, says the conditions in such close-management units are inhumane and special-management meals are "used as a punitive scheme for prisoners who haven't thrown food but who have done other kinds of wrong things."

"When someone's locked down in there, either one of two things happens," Siegel said. "Either the guy becomes a zombie or you get someone who acts out and becomes even more disturbed that they were to begin with."