Narratives of abuse leak steadily from our prison systems. All too often, though, the true extent and horror of violence and corruption within remains shrouded or unspoken. And certainly unseen. Frequently, the narratives of abuse are singular incidents deemed extraordinary enough to warrant investigation and perhaps some local news coverage. Frequently, single incidents are described in the media as originating, and limited to, a single institution. The flow of information of, and investigation into, wrongdoing in Florida’s youth prison system is, by comparison, an overwhelming flood of longstanding, coordinated manipulation and orchestrated abuse across multiple facilities.

Recently, The Miami Herald published a years-long investigation into into Florida’s juvenile justice system. Following the death of 17-year-old Elord Revolte, the Herald sourced documents, interviews and surveillance videos that reveal “a disturbing pattern of beatings doled out or ordered by officers”.

The investigation is aptly, and devastatingly, named Fight Club. It’s a sprawling deep-dive not only into the most egregious incidents of scandal but also into the deaths of 12 children in the system since 2000. This is difficult but important reporting.

Officers staged fights for entertainment, for gambling and to exert control. Officers relied on youths deemed stronger to enforce violent hierarchy and to mete out vicious beatings.

“Youthful enforcers are rewarded with sweet pastries from the employee vending machines, a phenomenon known as honey-bunning,” explains the Herald. “Beatings bought for the price of a pastry.”

The Miami Herald found that many of the staff were rejects from the adult prison system, previously fired due to an array of disqualifying behaviours.

“Florida’s youth corrections programs are sprinkled with hundreds of staffers who were jettisoned by the adult prison system or staffs at local jails but welcomed by institutions looking after incarcerated youths. Some had short-lived second-chance stints. Others remain on the job.”

Predators — both men and women — with violent histories were paid to look over society’s vulnerable children.

“Tommy Williams’ arrest for clobbering a severely disabled man he was paid to protect didn’t discourage his prospective employers at the Duval Youth Academy. They hired him,” writes the Herald. “Uriah T. Harris’ rap sheet featured a long string of arrests, including aggravated battery and child neglect. That didn’t deter his future bosses at the Avon Park Youth Academy. Both were hires that would prove regrettable.”

Some officers initiated sex with youthful detainees; they raped minors in their custody. All the while, staff built up a culture of see-nothing and say-nothing denial.

The online presentation of the reporting makes prominent use of acquired CCTV footage. Organised beating after organised beating. It’s shocking to watch. In one video, the youth are ordered to beat another once he enters the room. The staff member then kills the lights to make their ambush harder to deflect.

I’ve pulled some screencaps from the Herald’s designated webpage for the investigation. The sadistic manipulation of children as evidenced in weeks of footage the Herald sifted cannot be boiled down to any number of frames but here, at least, the inset captions give you an idea of the sick practices and abuse carried out by staff and by boys under the coercion of staff.

As revelatory as these CCTV videos are (as compared to the usual opaqueness from which prisons benefit) they are not a total indictment in every circumstance. While the videos paint a brutal picture of routine violence they did not, have not, and will not in every circumstance identify the perpetrator. Such was the case in the death of Elord Revolte. He was beaten by over a dozen prisoners and unprotected by staff at the Miami Dade Juvenile Correctional Center. Five staff were fired, but no prosecution was made. (Read the 66-page DJJ report here.)

The investigation, Fight Club, is incredibly difficult viewing and reading but it is a benchmark of prison reporting. Rarely is abuse from inside detailed so thoroughly and viscerally. Of the many profoundly sad aspects of the reporting are the interviews with parents of children killed or severely injured. No matter what your child has done, you do not expect the state to send him or her home in a body bag.

View Fight Club. It is beyond shocking but it is also imperative journalism.

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