Prisoners are forgotten people. Locked away, they are totally out of sight, and even more out of mind.
Yet prisoners are among society’s most vulnerable populations. Like children, they are completely dependent on others for everything from food to clothing to medical care. But unlike children, who are mostly cared for by parents who have their best interests at heart, prisoners are overseen by prison guards. This makes them even more vulnerable: Prisoners rely completely on prison guards for everything, and if they are being abused by those guards they are not in a position to tell anyone, not a single person — not a teacher or a church member or any other members of the community — because prisoners don’t live in the community. They live behind steel, locked doors. Which is why violence against prisoners by prison guards is such a terrible abuse of power.
To be clear, the thought of a prison guard abusing a prisoner does not sadden most of us the way that child abuse does. This is because most of us assume that the prisoner is a fundamentally bad person who deserves whatever is coming to him. But bear in mind that most prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent offenses — a notion that should impact anyone’s idea of the “bad” prisoner. And even those who have committed violent offenses don’t deserve to be brutalized.
Allegations of horrific and widespread abuse of Florida prisoners — a story broken recently in a series of articles by the Miami Herald — serve to remind us that we cannot, and should not, forget about prisoners. Take, for example, Darren Rainey and Randall Jordan-Aparo, who purportedly died in unthinkably cruel ways at the hands of their guards.
According to reports, in 2012, Darren Rainey, a mentally ill man serving a two-year prison sentence for a non-violent crime of cocaine possession, defecated in his cell and refused to clean it up. In response, guards allegedly forced Rainey to stand in a tiny shower cell under scalding hot water for almost two hours. Fellow inmates reported that Rainey screamed in agony until his skin literally separated from his body. Rainey was found lifeless in the shower stall — apparently boiled to death at the hands of his guards.
In 2010, Randall Jordan-Aparo was serving a two-year prison term for the non-violent crime of check forgery. While serving his sentence, Jordan-Aparo had a flare-up of a rare blood disorder. After Jordan-Aparo’s desperate pleas for proper medical treatment annoyed the guards, they sprayed lethal doses of mustard-colored gas into his tiny cell. Jordan-Aparo was found dead, a Bible under his shoulder, his face next to the bottom of the locked prison cell door, as if searching for a last gasp of air. The cause of death was listed as an infection related to the blood disorder, with no mention of the strange orange residue coating his body.
The deaths of Rainey and Jordan-Aparo are horrific.
In recent weeks, and seemingly in response to Florida media reports about their deaths, Florida Secretary of the Department of Corrections Michael Crews dismissed 32 guards who were accused of criminal misconduct or wrongdoing stemming from inmate deaths at four different prisons throughout the state. In doing so, the Florida Department of Corrections has perhaps taken a first, small step in addressing the allegations of violence and cruelty exhibited within the prison walls throughout the state. But for every death, for every act of vicious abuse, there were likely scores of guards, medical personnel, and prison administrators — maybe even senior prison administrators — who actively participated or tacitly acquiesced in the murderous, abusive behavior.
It does not bode well for correctional overhaul in Florida that Mr. Crews has handed over the investigation of 85 non-natural prison inmate deaths to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the same agency that closed its investigation on Jordan-Aparo’s death without any findings of wrongdoing. FDLE was already investigating nine additional mysterious inmate deaths.
Nor does it bode well that upon learning of the 32 dismissals, officials from the Florida Correctional Union called the firings a “massacre.”
There seems to have been a massacre in Florida’s prisons, all right. But it’s most certainly not the firings.
It will take genuine leadership, a major housecleaning, and correctional union cooperation to overcome what appears to be an ingrained and devastating culture of abuse in Florida’s prison.
It is often said that the measure of a civilized society is how it treats its most vulnerable members. We need to care about and remember our prisoners, many of whom are poor people of color serving relatively short prison sentences for non-violent offenses. The consequences of forgetting, as demonstrated in Florida, are deadly.