A YouTube video that shows multiple guards beating an inmate at a state prison west of Orlando earlier this month has prompted an investigation and revived questions about conditions in state corrections facilities.
The video, uploaded to YouTube over the weekend, was taken from a cell phone smuggled into Lake Correctional Institution, which is near Clermont in Lake County. It shows several corrections officials surrounding and repeatedly punching an inmate on the ground for several minutes.
The Florida Department of Corrections’ Office of Inspector General said it has launched an investigation. In a statement earlier this week, Corrections Secretary Mark Inch called the video “deeply disturbing.”
Compounding the incident are screenshots of a private Facebook group chat that surfaced online that appear to depict corrections officers remarking in jest about the beating.
One officer stated the beaten inmate “looks like beetle juice” and posted a meme with an image of Lester “Beetlejuice” Green, an actor and comedian who was a regular on Howard Stern’s show and who has microcephaly, a condition where a child is born with an abnormally small head.
The existence of the video and the Facebook chat messages were first reported by the Florida Times-Union.
Department of Corrections officials did not confirm the authenticity of the screenshots but said in a statement that “the information found on Facebook” had been provided to the department’s office of Inspector General.
Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, who received screenshots of the chat, said that if the chain of messages is real, “it’s depressing and terribly disturbing.”
Hart, who advocates for criminal justice reform, said the beating and the subsequent chat messages appear to illustrate a cultural problem that she’s observed in other prison facilities.
“There have only been a couple facilities I’ve been in where they say, ‘No, they’re not beating people here,’” Hart said, saying she has visited 26 facilities so far. “There’s no question this is not an isolated incident. This is happening throughout the state of Florida.”
The Department of Corrections has not identified the officers involved in the incident, although Inch said in statements that all those identified have been taken “out of contact with inmates” until the conclusion of the investigation. He said those found to have participated in any level of abuse or failing to report abuse would be subject to administrative and/or criminal charges.
Department of Corrections officials also declined to identify the name of the inmate, although both Hart and the inmate’s sister, Shantell Grace, identified him as Otis Miller. According to corrections records, Miller has been incarcerated since 2002.
Grace said she made aware of the July 8 incident involving her brother through an anonymous call the next day. She said she immediately drove to the Lake Correctional Institution but was initially denied the chance to see her brother.
Grace said she was finally able to see Miller on Tuesday, a week after the incident. She said he has been moved to the Central Florida Reception Center in Orlando.
“To see his face, it was hard to see,” Grace said. “His eyes were red, his face was swollen some.” Grace said her brother told her he had broken ribs and that something was wrong with his jaw.
Grace said she’s received messages with other stories of reported abuses in prison since her brother’s story became public. She said the group chat messages strongly suggest to her that those involved “are comfortable with what they did and they do it all the time.”
This month’s incident comes amid a push in Florida for criminal justice reform. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he was disturbed but not surprised by the incident, saying the state’s Department of Corrections “is in crisis.”
Brandes said there’s been an increasing turnover rate among corrections officers, which has contributed to rising overtime costs and other problems.
“Officer on inmate violence is up, inmate on inmate violence is up, contraband is up,” Brandes said.
Brandes said changes need to be made to reduce the inmate population and to better raise guards’ salaries and professionalize that role, or problems will persist.
On Wednesday, the Department of Corrections announced that a Jackson County inmate had been charged with attempted murder of a correctional officer and possession of contraband for attacking three corrections officers with an improvised knife.
Florida’s prison system is the third-largest in the country. It holds 96,000 inmates and has 24,000 employees and a budget of about $2.7 billion.