Latandra Ellington, a 36-year old mother of four children, died in a Florida prison last week. Ellington had just seven months left to serve of her twenty-two month sentence for grand theft when she was found dead in her cell.
Before her death, Ellington feared for her life. On September 21, 2014, Ellington wrote a prescient letter to her aunt, Algerine Jennings, in which Ellington expressed her concerns about one of the prison officers.
Ellington wrote that an officer — identified only as Sergeant Q. — “was gone[sic] beat me to death and mess me like a dog.” She added, “Auntie, no one knows how to speak or say this man’s name. But he goes by Sergeant Q. and he works the B Shift a.m. So please call up here.”
Jennings said she was already fearful for her niece’s safety because Ellington previously had described repeated incidents of abuse, both against Ellington and against other inmates.
In response to the letter, Jennings called the prison. Jennings said she was assured by a correctional officer that they would “look after” her niece.
Less than 24 hours later, Ellington was dead.
The prison did not provide the family with additional information. Frustrated by the absence of an explanation, Ellington’s family hired a lawyer and paid for a private autopsy. That autopsy showed that Ellington suffered blunt-force trauma to her abdomen, consistent with being punched and kicked in the stomach.
Daryll Parks, a civil rights lawyer hired by Ellington’s family, has written to the Department of Justice, urging the DOJ to investigate the case. And perhaps the DOJ will do just that.
But here is what makes this horrible situation so utterly disturbing. On the very same day that Ellington wrote her last letter to her aunt, 32 Florida correctional officers were fired in connection with a series of inmate prison deaths around the state. Michael Crews, Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, proclaimed that “that there is zero tolerance for corruption or abuse.”
Yet, despite the media statements and the mass firings, abuse appears to have continued unchecked. Another life was unnecessarily lost. And another death can now be added to the string of nearly 200 ongoing Florida state prison death investigations.
When people commit a crime, their punishment is their prison sentence. That’s it. The punishment is the confinement. It’s the separation from families and friends, the monotony, the lack of privacy, the loss of autonomy, the lousy food, the absence of independence.
The punishment is not being boiled to death, as appears to have happened to Darren Rainey in one Florida prison. It’s not being gassed to death, as appears to have happened to Randall Jordan-Apparo in a different Florida prison. And it’s certainly not being beaten to death, as appears to have happened to Latandra Ellington in yet another Florida prison.
Think of it this way: The correctional environment is a fragile ecosystem. We entrust to the correctional staff the well-being of the people who are serving time in prison. We depend upon correctional staff, many of whom do a good job in difficult conditions, to maintain order, safety and security. When that goes haywire, and officers themselves become violent offenders, then the whole system deteriorates. It becomes a torture palace, the likes of which a democratic society should never tolerate.
And keep this in mind: When a crime is committed, the state prosecutes the offender on behalf of all the citizens of that state. And if the offender is convicted, they are punished on behalf of all the citizens in the state. And when that punishment becomes something more than imprisonment, then the citizens have a responsibility to make sure the state puts a stop to it.
Florida appears to have a correctional culture in need of immediate and meaningful reform. Ellington should not be dead. The state needs to end the rampant deaths and other abuses in prison.