News Article Details

‘Let them beat the (expletive) out of her:’ Tensions between security and mental health staff continue at troubled Panhandle prison

Florida Times-Union - 7/12/2019

Tensions over alleged threats made by correctional officers toward employees at a Panhandle prison spiked this week after a mental health counselor complained that a group of officers joked about leaving her locked in a room with inmates and letting them "beat the (expletive) out of her."

Darsell Harris, a licensed mental health counselor at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, told the Times-Union that she first heard about the comment from inmates, then requested to review footage of that area of the facility at the time the inmates specified. When she did, she said she saw three female officers and one male officer standing in a doorway in the dorm she worked in.

"It was a male voice that said 'This is not her house,'" Harris said. "Then I heard a male voice say 'We'll just let them beat the (expletive) out of her.'

Harris, who works for medical contractor Centurion, said she requested the officers involved to be moved out of her dorm, but she said supervisors instead suggested that she move to another dorm if she felt unsafe.

Seven employees in the mental health dorms at Santa Rosa walked out of work on Thursday, protesting Centurion and the administration at Santa Rosa for not swiftly disciplining the officers involved and ensuring that mental health workers felt safe at the facility.

Five of the seven employees who walked out on Thursday returned Friday morning to learn they were being suspended without pay, according to Harris, who was one of the five. The Times-Union spoke to three other people with direct knowledge of the suspensions. They confirmed Harris' account but requested anonymity due to fears of retaliation for speaking to the media.

The employees, who work for medical contractor Centurion, said they no longer felt safe at work due to the administration's inaction in the face of continuing threats made to their physical safety.

Harris told the Times-Union that the incident left her, her husband and her children "very distraught."

"They feel like I'm not safe here," Harris said. "I'm up all night calming my kids down, calming my husband down."

Harris said she observed the video on July 9 and felt the comments were dangerous not only for her, but for her colleagues as well.

"They've planted a seed into mentally ill inmates that they will allow them to beat us up," she said. "I told them, 'This is going to get ugly.'"

The walk-out at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution comes roughly two months after the Times-Union reported accounts from about a dozen whistleblowers of horrific conditions at the prison, including correctional officers starving inmates with "air trays," beating a handcuffed prisoner, and making racist threats toward African American employees who reported their transgressions.

Employees told the Times-Union that there were some personnel changes but tensions between security and mental health staff continued at the prison following the report. They said they had a meeting with Centurion supervisors Thursday morning, where they requested an in-person meeting with Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch.

Centurion has not returned requests for comment. A Department of Corrections spokeswoman would not say whether Secretary Inch would agree to the meeting because he had not yet been notified of the request.

On Thursday, Inch threw his weight behind the administration at Santa Rosa, but did not confirm or deny any of the allegations made by employees.

Inch told the Times-Union in a statement that Santa Rosa "has one of the most challenging missions in the state, housing our high custody inmates with a history of disruptive and violent behavior, and inmates with severe and persistent mental illness."

"As with any institution with this type of mission, staffing challenges can arise," Inch said. "We take these allegations very seriously and will ensure a complete, thorough and independent investigation will be conducted."

Harris told the Times-Union that several prison supervisors were in the room when she heard the audio from the security footage, and that inmates who overheard the comments also made written statements. Nonetheless, she said, the officers involved were not immediately removed from the dorm where she worked. The Times-Union requested those inmate statements as well as the security footage at issue on Friday.

Instead of moving the officers, Harris said, her supervisors and prison officials offered to reassign her to a different mental health dorm or the main unit at Santa Rosa Correctional Institute.

Harris declined that option, writing in an email to prison officials that such a response would only empower officers to continue making threats, bullying, and harassing her and her coworkers.

"It is not acceptable to condone this type of behavior, especially in an (sic) mental health inpatient unit," Harris wrote in the email.

Harris said she believes the incident stems from a confrontation she had with a correctional officer on July 4, after she said one of her therapy groups went slightly over schedule and an officer entered the room without knocking. Harris said that interruption violated patient privacy laws and argued with the officer, who responded that they had strict schedules to follow.

After reporting the incident to a lieutenant, Harris said, the ranking officer agreed that the officer violated protocol and said he would handle it. Harris said she heard about the comments made by other officers five days later.

"It's retaliation," Harris said. "But you can't come into a mental health group. I told her, 'You can't do that.'"

Inch told the Times-Union he has "full confidence in the leadership team regionally and locally to address the current challenges head on and make certain security is not compromised and proper medical and mental health treatment continues without interruption."

On Friday, Harris said she learned that she was suspended without pay pending an Office of Inspector General investigation.

"We all said we were unsafe and this is how they decide to deal with it," Harris said. "This is their solution, and now the patients aren't getting any kind of treatment."

Ben Conarck: (904) 359-4103

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(c)2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

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