An inmate at Columbia Correctional Institution's annex was able to strangle and mutilate his cellmate, gouge out his eyeballs, wrap his blood-soaked body in a sheet and walk into the prison's chow hall wearing the dead inmate's ear strung around his neck before officers learned anything was amiss, several prison sources told the Miami Herald.
The murder happened Thursday morning, hours before an apparently unrelated gang melee erupted in another building on the compound, located in Lake City, 50 miles west of Jacksonville. In that disturbance, two gangs — the Bloods and the Cutthroats — began stabbing each other with knives in a clash over smuggled contraband, a source said. Only one officer was in the control room — responsible for supervising scores of inmates at the time it happened in G Dorm of the main building, one of sources said.
Thursday's murder happened in the prison's annex — a building separate from the main building where the armed battle took place later in the day, the source said. The annex and the main building are run as two distinct prisons, but they are part of the same compound, with a total capacity of about 3,000 inmates. Columbia houses some of the most violent inmates in the state, prison officials said.
A spokesman for the Department of Corrections identified the slain inmate as Larry Mark, 58. Mark was serving a life sentence for a murder he committed in Broward County in 1981, according to his prison record.
The department confirmed that the inmate's next of kin had been notified.
However, neither FDC, nor the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — which is investigating the murder — would provide further details or confirm the circumstances of the killing. They also would not provide the name of the attacker.
Two of the prison sources said the cellmate became angry at Mark for pestering him. After strangling him, he cut off his ear and gouged out his eyeballs, three sources confirmed. He put the ear on a string around his neck, showing it off to several inmates, before morning breakfast in the chow hall, the sources said. He left the eyeballs in a cup in the cell and told other prisoners that he intended to either eat or drink them later.
It's not clear why corrections officers failed to notice that one inmate was missing from the count before breakfast.
There were unconfirmed reports that the killer had recently been transferred to Columbia from Florida State Prison where he had been on Death Row.
Often, inmates who have violent histories or are considered a threat to other inmates are housed separately from the rest of the population.
A corrections officer, who did not witness either incident but was close to those involved in the investigations, said that officers on the compound are rattled by the explosion of violence that they have been struggling to control with limited resources and short staffing. He described dorms staffed by a single officer, responsible for supervising hundreds of inmates, many of them gang members under the influence of the powerful drug K2, or synthetic marijuana, which is being smuggled or dropped into the prison, sometimes by drones.
The officer, a veteran of the department, described a prison that is so short-staffed that inmates have been able to conjure up disturbances so that a when officers are summoned to that skirmish, prisoners in other dorms are able to traffic in drugs and other contraband freely.
He said most officers at the prison are young and inexperienced, making them easy prey for the gangs, whose members offer them bounties to help with trafficking their contraband.
"They just hire anybody now,'' the veteran officer said. "They just come in and smuggle drugs and they get caught and nothing really happens to them.''
The officer also revealed that the Columbia is part of a pilot program in which some officers are now armed with tasers. FDC confirmed the new program is at the main unit, but not the annex.
"I have mixed feelings about whether the tasers are a good thing or a bad thing,'' the officer said. "If you have an inmate cutting ears off and strangling someone, it's only going to take one inmate to jump a staff member and use that taser for the wrong reasons,'' he said.
In 2016, a corrections officer was jumped and stabbed at Columbia, and in 2012, Sgt. Ruben Thomas, 24, was stabbed and killed by an inmate at the prison.
Short-staffing has resulted in fewer cell searches, making it easier to conceal shanks and other makeshift weapons, said one source.
Julie Jones, FDC secretary, declined to be interviewed for this article. As in the past, she provided a written statement calling such violence "intolerable.''
FDLE has four other open death investigations at the prison and recent reports indicate that inmates who have died at Columbia had been smoking K2 in their cells prior to their deaths.
The annex dorm where Mark was killed was staffed by one officer assigned to the control room. A sergeant — also assigned to the dorm where it happened — was unable to make his rounds because he was working other posts in the compound, the source said.
"You have one staff member in there, in the control room and all he does is stay in that room, pushing buttons, and answering phones. He can't leave that area,'' the officer explained. "The sergeant is supposed to stay in that building and do the 30-minute checks, but he is pulled off to do other security during recreation, moving inmates to the chow hall, etc., so the officer in the control room is left alone and all he can do is observe through the windows of the control room — he can't see in the cells.''
The killer had been rumored to be on death row before he was transferred to Columbia, but FDC did not provide his name or his status.
Aubrey Land, a former inspector with the Florida prison system, said that gangs are controlling many of the state's 50 prisons.
"There are criminal gangs operating in every facility in the state of Florida and it is contributing to the K2 deaths and the violence and has been for many years,'' said Land, who is now a prison and jail consultant.
Inmate deaths are at an all-time high in the Florida prison system, and murders and inmate-on-inmate violence has exploded, records show.
"The FDC has continuously ignored the safety of our staff and inmates. Our next governor's greatest challenge will be to address this lingering problem,'' Land said.
It is difficult to confirm the seriousness of the incidents at Florida prisons, since the agency rarely provides details, often citing security concerns or health privacy laws as reasons for limiting what information it will provide to the public. The Miami Herald is often notified about the problems by staff at the prisons themselves, or by other local law enforcement agencies or emergency teams that respond to the prisons.
In recent months, the Florida Legislature has announced cutbacks in programs that prison advocates say are essential to rehabilitating inmates and keeping them busy. In May, the prison agency said it would have to cut mental health, substance abuse and re-entry programs to help make up for a $50 million shortfall in its healthcare and pharmaceuticals budgets. The cuts would also include prison chaplains and librarians.
Three recent outside audits of the department concluded that dangerous staffing levels leave the agency vulnerable to inmate disruptions at its 49 prisons. The agency loses about one-third of its corrections officers each year, according to the reports, and those who replace them are often young and inexperienced, with little or no training. Approximately one-third of the agency's corrections officers are trainees.
Full statement by Julie Jones, FDC’s secretary:
"Any loss of life at the hands of an inmate is intolerable, and we are working with our partners at FDLE to investigate this death and ensure anyone responsible is held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.
Florida corrections officers have an extremely difficult job, and we ask and expect a lot of them, despite the staffing challenges that exist at our institutions. The nature of this work is inherently dangerous, but I know that our more than 11,000 dedicated officers are committed to our public safety mission and do an outstanding job, day and night, to supervise the 96,000 inmates in our custody."