Culture of brutality flourished at Florida Panhandle prison

Published March 23, 2015

By Julie K. Brown

Miami Herald

Few people knew the depths of terror, misery and pain inflicted upon Florida's state prison inmates more profoundly than Capt. James Kirkland.

During 14 years as a corrections officer, Kirkland was repeatedly accused — and not just by inmates, but by fellow corrections officers — of abusing inmates at the Northwest Florida Reception Center in Chipley. They said he contaminated inmates' food, sprayed them with chemicals for no reason and threatened to break their fingers and to kill them, according to state Department of Corrections and court documents obtained by the Miami Herald.

These practices flourished under former Warden Samuel Culpepper, a tough disciplinarian brought in to clean up the troubled institution. Under Culpepper, inmates in confinement at Northwest Florida said they were stripped naked or down to their boxers at the whim of guards and had all their belongings and their mattresses taken away, then left around the clock on a cold metal bunk for 72 hours or more, with nothing to hold, not even a Bible.

DOC policy allows that to occur if an inmate in confinement — housed away from the general population -- is impeding the normal operations of the institution. But inmates said the policy was taken to unheard-of extremes under Culpepper. Inmates complained that they would shiver, cold and petrified, waiting to be gassed.

"They wait until you are naked and they spray you,'' one inmate told a Florida Department of Corrections investigator in 2009.

According to prisoners, the guards would sometimes heat up the gas canisters before activating them, making the chemicals more potent and stick more stubbornly to inmates' skin.

The Department of Justice and state lawmakers have been taking a close look at DOC operations in the wake of a year in which inmate deaths spiked to new heights. The rise in deaths, some attributable to an aging prison population, followed a doubling of use of force by staff over a five-year span.

The department, in turn, is reviewing its use-of-force policies as result of the Herald stories and criticism from human rights groups.

NWFRC, formerly called Washington Correctional Institution and located in the Panhandle, is one of the state's most notoriously violent prisons, with a long history of complaints and lawsuits alleging the widespread use of chemical agents against its inmates.

Records reviewed by the Herald indicate that for years Northwest Florida wardens allegedly pressured corrections officers to "gas'' inmates — spray them with various chemical agents — as a disciplinary measure, even if they had done little or nothing to disrupt the prison. The prisoners were sprayed even if they suffered from mental illness or health problems, such as asthma, records show.

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One current Florida inmate who served time under Culpepper at Northwest Florida and Apalachee Correctional, Harold Hempstead, said Culpepper would be brought in when a prison was experiencing disruption. One of the first things he would do, Hempstead said, was have corrections officers spray-paint the outline of footprints at every cell. When the prison staff called for an inspection, inmates were expected to stand precisely within the outline of the footprints.

"When they yelled inspection, you would get on those footprints or you would get gassed," said Hempstead, a convicted burglar now serving time at Columbia Correctional.

This practice of random gassing, which officers came to call "the program,'' was enforced more frequently by some officers than others.

Allegedly among the most feared was Kirkland, who was repeatedly accused of spraying inmates for having filed grievances against him. In 2011, Kirkland and a sergeant were caught on video gassing an inmate even though he had allegedly obeyed orders to cease his disruptive behavior. Kirkland was disciplined, but inmates continued to file complaints about his incessant use of chemical agents.

According to Jerry Sellers, a former corrections officer at the prison, Kirkland's behavior was well known at the prison going back years.

In February 2014, Kirkland ordered Sellers and other officers to remove an inmate from his cell. Sellers, in an incident report, told the prison's current warden, William Churchwell, that Kirkland wanted them to harm the inmate, who was not named in the report.

"He said he wanted us to break every finger in the inmate's hand — those were his exact words,'' Sellers told the Herald. "I just couldn't do it.''

Sellers declined to participate, and said he was accused by Kirkland of "cowardice.'' Within a week, Churchwell forced Sellers to resign, the former officer said.

"I have a family and I just didn't think what he was asking me to do was safe or right,'' said Sellers, who is now a corporal at the Holmes County jail.

Sellers wasn't the first officer to refuse to go along with abuse at NWFRC that they allege was condoned, if not encouraged, by those at the top.

Between 2009 and 2011, at least six corrections officers told DOC investigators that they were ostracized, suspended or fired for refusing to participate in "the program.'' The officers who reported the abuse were called snitches and cowards, written up for infractions and investigated.

Josh Glickman, a Washington, D.C. attorney representing an NWFRC inmate who claims he was sexually assaulted by an officer at the prison in 2009, said he has reviewed hundreds of documents in the course of litigating his case over the past two years.

"This abuse was daily at NWFRC and it was reported by multiple supervisors to the inspector general's office and the department's central office and the evidence was completely ignored,'' Glickman said. "The only response was to sweep it under the rug.''

New Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones has promised no retaliation against whistleblowers as well as greater transparency, though she maintains that the prison system's woes are isolated and mostly in the past.

"I think what we have is a group of disgruntled employees that do not have the best interests of the department at heart," Jones told National Public Radio last week after several inspectors testified before state senators on March 10 that their efforts to root out abuse, misconduct and corruption were thwarted by those who outrank them.

On Friday, Jones' spokesman, McKinley Lewis, said that Jones is committed to overhauling the department and is developing a five-year plan of reforms, including new disciplinary procedures for officers.

Still, Glickman, of the Social Justice Law Collective, a Washington-based civil rights law firm, said Jones doesn't seem to understand that inmate abuse will continue unless she fires those who have condoned the abuse, not just the officers who carried it out.

"The individuals actually responsible for the abuse to repeatedly occur and continue are still very much a part of today's Department of Corrections,'' Glickman said.

Rubber band man

Kirkland was known by some inmates as "the rubber band man." Among the things that would set him off, they said, was seeing a prisoner with a rubber band. But there were other questions about his emotional stability.

In March of last year, Kirkland was involuntarily committed to a mental institution, according to Washington County Sheriff's records.

Kirkland's son, who was not named in the police report, called the sheriff's office at 1 a.m. on March 10, 2014, telling officers that his father was "talking crazy, saying he wanted to die.'' He said his father had recently checked out of Emerald Coast, a psychiatric hospital in Panama City.

Kirkland was transported back to Emerald Coast, the sheriff's report said. It's not clear how long he was there, or when he returned to work — only that he allegedly went back to abusing inmates.

In September, he and five other officers at the NWFRC were arrested by federal agents, charged with felony battery, after they allegedly beat and stomped a handcuffed and shackled prisoner during an incident the month before. Authorities allege that to justify the assault, which was captured on security video, Kirkland concocted a story that the inmate had spit on him.

Four months after his arrest, Kirkland — facing a subsequent indictment and the possibility of serving time with inmates very much like those he had allegedly abused — put a gun to his head and killed himself, according to the Washington County sheriff's report.

Besides a 9mm Smith and Wesson, and a spent shell casing, sheriff's deputies found 32 bottles of pills in Kirkland's home, mostly prescription painkillers and anti-depressants.

'Sprayed daily'

In 2009, the frequency of gassings and allegations of abuse at the Northwest Florida Reception Center so alarmed Murdina Campbell, then-executive director of the state's Correctional Medical Authority, that she alerted then-Inspector General Paul Decker.

The CMA is a seven-member volunteer board whose members are appointed by the governor to oversee and monitor physical and mental health treatment within the state's prison system.

It was more of the same: Inmates in confinement told CMA officials that they were forced to strip down to their boxers and "were sprayed daily" with chemical agents without cause.

One inmate said his cellmate would fill the door cracks with toothpaste to prevent the spray from seeping in as the officers were gassing nearby inmates.

He said officers just walked into confinement and "picked us out'' for gassing.

The spraying of chemical agents, called "gassing" by corrections officers, involves substances commonly referred to as "pepper spray," or oleoresin capsicum (OC), and the more potent "tear gas,'' chlorobenzylidene malonitrile (CS).

Under department policy, corrections officers can spray inmates for "causing a disturbance" that disrupts the normal operation of the prison. That can mean anything from kicking a cell door to shouting profanities. Hempstead said it was common for guards to contact a supervisor complaining about an inmate kicking his cell door and, during the conversation, kick at their desk, pretending to be the disruptive inmate.

In any event, under a captain's supervision, a sergeant or other corrections officer would then shoot pepper spray through the flap to the inmate's confinement cell in three one-second blasts. If the inmate did not cease the behavior that led to the first round of chemicals, the officers would return and apply tear gas in the same manner.

There are guidelines as to how the chemicals are administered, and the effects are so toxic that the DOC requires the inmate be offered a shower and medical examination afterward. They should then be provided clean clothing, and, if necessary, their cell should be decontaminated.

Northwest Florida inmates told CMA officials that this protocol was often not followed, especially by Kirkland. They complained that he would spray four or five cells in succession, leaving multiple inmates drenched in chemicals.

At about the same time as the CMA investigation, two captains at the prison, Tolbert Seiffert and Dwayne Searcy, contacted the inspector general's office with a litany of horror stories, dealing with alleged abuse, cover-ups and retaliation at the prison.

The prison's in-house inspector, Debra Carter Arrant, was assigned to investigate in March 2009.

Seiffert described to Arrant how his fellow officers, as well as higher-ups, spoke about how prisoners were gassed even when there was no radio report of any disturbance in the confinement unit.

Seiffert told the inspector that the warden — Culpepper at that time — threatened to fire him because he wasn't "getting with the program."

Searcy, in his interview with Arrant, said he saw a corrections officer beating an inmate as other officers "manipulated" the fixed-wing camera to make it appear that the use of force was only a couple of minutes in duration when in reality it was 15 minutes. This was in 2008, shortly after Culpepper arrived at the prison, following a series of disturbances at Northwest Florida.

Over the next two years, additional guards — Sgt. Ronnie Bowers and officers Christopher Christmas, Thomas Brown and Jason Harvell — would come forward to report that gassings and beatings were common and unprovoked. At least one of the complainants, Seiffert, was disciplined and fired. Seiffert sued and eventually got his job back.

Bowers, in his statement to the inspector general in 2009, described how officers typed up use-of-force forms as if they were work orders, in advance, filling in the names of inmates they intended to gas the next day. The practice became problematic, he said, when officers either accidentally or purposefully sprayed inmates whose names weren't on the forms.

Christmas, in a sworn statement in 2011, said he overheard Culpepper admonish Seiffert for refusing to spray inmates.

"I had heard Warden Culpepper say you need to get with the program or you are going to have to get gone and find something else to do,'' Christmas said.

The Herald asked the DOC for a comment from Culpepper, but the agency declined to make him available.

Culpepper, who began his career as a corrections officer at Lancaster Correctional Institution in 1979, was promoted in 2011 to regional director. He currently oversees 20 institutions, including the NWFRC, Santa Rosa and Franklin correctional institutions.

Arrant closed her investigation into abuse at NWFRC in August 2009, without conducting any interviews other than those with the officers and inmates who came forward. Two years later, in a deposition in connection with Seiffert's lawsuit, she said her bosses at the inspector general's office told her they saw no reason to probe the allegations.

DOC did, however, order Culpepper to "amend'' the manner in which he placed inmates on property restriction.

In an email to NWFRC officers in July 2009, Culpepper said "I've been called down on my interpretation of the rule and instructed to immediately cease utilizing property restriction as a discipline tool.''

In the future, he told subordinates, inmates who fail to make their beds or keep their cell clean will be written up in disciplinary reports, but not have their belongings taken away.

Death by gassing

The frequent gassing did not end.

A year later, on June 3, 2010, Rommell Johnson, an asthmatic inmate who had been suffering breathing problems, was gassed in his confinement cell and died at NWFRC.

Officers stated that Johnson, who was serving 40 years for armed robbery, had refused to return his food tray and began shouting obscenities. A regular in the prison infirmary because of his ailment, Johnson had just been treated for breathing problems at the prison's infirmary earlier that day.

Despite his medical history — and the alleged respiratory difficulty he had experienced that afternoon — guards sprayed him in the face, chest and torso that evening after consulting with a prison nurse who said he was healthy enough to be gassed, according to the DOC's inspector general investigation.

Several corrections officers later told inspectors that Johnson had been targeted for discipline by the day shift because the day-shift nurse thought Johnson "faked'' his earlier asthma attack.

After he was gassed as many as three times, Johnson collapsed in his cell. Capt. Michael Mercer wrote that he refused to "cuff up'' and shower, so he was left on the floor of the cell, unresponsive.

About a half hour later, he was found barely breathing, his lips blue and his mouth foaming, the IG report said.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed against the DOC alleged that instead of taking Johnson to a hospital, the officers put him on a stretcher and took him to the infirmary, where they unsuccessfully tried to revive him. They then strapped him into a wheelchair with sheets and took him to the shower, where officers poured cups of water over him. At that point, he stopped breathing and paramedics were called.

He was pronounced dead on arrival at Bay Medical Center. His body was "saturated" with brownish orange chemical residue, according to the lawsuit.

The medical examiner ruled that Johnson died of acute exacerbation of asthma associated with the inhalation of chemicals, according to the autopsy report.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement was not called to investigate, although other corrections officers later came forward suggesting that Johnson might have been saved had staff not left him in his cell coated in chemicals.

"The guards were standing at the door, all they had to do is pull him out, and instead they let him sit there,'' said Randall Berg, the attorney representing Johnson's mother, Evelyn Brady, who settled a lawsuit last year for $175,000.

Senior Inspector Arthur Roundtree and, ironically, Arrant (the same inspector who closed the abuse case) determined that Johnson's death was caused by his own actions. They said when he "refused'' to allow staff to cuff him up and take him for a shower, it prolonged his exposure to the chemicals and prevented medical staff from treating him in a timely manner.

An eerily similar death occurred three months later at Franklin Correctional Institution, where Arrant — again investigating — determined that the fatal gassing of inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo was justified and that officers had not violated any policies.

Both cases have been reopened by the department and referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for review.

Mercer has since left the department.

DOC spokesman McKinley Lewis said Jones, who was appointed in January to replace former secretary Michael Crews, is committed to rooting out corrupt and abusive officers and has sent staff on "outreach'' trips to prisons across the state to send a message that she welcomes and will even "reward'' employees who provide information about wrongdoing.

"We're looking for long-term solutions,'' Lewis said. "It's about longevity and sustainability, so that we don't come back to these same issues. We don't want to relapse.''

The Chipley Five

The federal indictment, issued last month against the five remaining NWFRC officers — all former sergeants — alleges that Kirkland gassed inmate Jeremiah Tatum, then later told the sergeants that he wanted to "teach him a lesson.'' So, it alleges, he fabricated a story that the inmate had spit on him, giving them cause to beat him. The beating was captured on the prison security cameras. Footage shows Tatum was assaulted as he was being escorted with his arms handcuffed and his ankles restrained.

Tatum, serving seven years for drug dealing, was slammed face-first into the concrete floor as one sergeant jumped on his legs.

The federal arrests came amid investigative articles by the Herald and other media, alleging systemic abuse of inmates at several prisons, including Dade Correctional Institution, where inmate Darren Rainey died in 2012 after being forced by guards into a scalding shower.

The surviving NWFRC officers indicted last month — dubbed the Chipley Five — were William Finch, Dalton Riley, James Perkins, Robert Miller and Christopher Christmas.

They are accused of conspiring to violate the inmate's constitutional rights.

Christmas is the same officer who recalled in a deposition how he heard Seiffert admonished for not wanting to get involved in the prison's abuse "program.''

Christmas' lawyer declined comment, and the Herald was unsuccessful in reaching attorneys representing the other officers.

All have been fired.

Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.