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White supremacist prison guards work with impunity in Fla.

November 19, 2021 GMT
FILE - A pickup truck with a Confederate flag-themed decal is parked outside the Reception and Medical Center, the state's prison hospital where new inmates are processed, in Lake Butler, Fla., Friday, April 16, 2021. According to public documents and interviews with a dozen inmates and current and former employees in the nation’s tenth largest prison system, Florida prison guards openly tout associations with white supremacist groups to intimidate inmates and Black colleagues, a persistent practice that goes unpunished and is allowed to fester in prisons throughout the U.S. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
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FILE - A pickup truck with a Confederate flag-themed decal is parked outside the Reception and Medical Center, the state's prison hospital where new inmates are processed, in Lake Butler, Fla., Friday, April 16, 2021. According to public documents and interviews with a dozen inmates and current and former employees in the nation’s tenth largest prison system, Florida prison guards openly tout associations with white supremacist groups to intimidate inmates and Black colleagues, a persistent practice that goes unpunished and is allowed to fester in prisons throughout the U.S. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
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FILE - A pickup truck with a Confederate flag-themed decal is parked outside the Reception and Medical Center, the state's prison hospital where new inmates are processed, in Lake Butler, Fla., Friday, April 16, 2021. According to public documents and interviews with a dozen inmates and current and former employees in the nation’s tenth largest prison system, Florida prison guards openly tout associations with white supremacist groups to intimidate inmates and Black colleagues, a persistent practice that goes unpunished and is allowed to fester in prisons throughout the U.S. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

In June, three Florida prison guards who boasted of being white supremacists beat, pepper sprayed and used a stun gun on an inmate who screamed “I can’t breathe!” at a prison near the Alabama border, according to a fellow inmate who reported it to the state.

The next day, the officers at Jackson Correctional Institution did it again to another inmate, the report filed with the Florida Department of Corrections’ Office of Inspector General alleged.

“If you notice these two incidents were people of color. They (the guards) let it be known they are white supremacist,” the inmate Jamaal Reynolds wrote.

Both incidents occurred in view of cameras, he said. Reynolds’ neatly printed letter included the exact times and locations, and named the officers and inmates. It’s the type of specific information that would have made it easier for officials to determine if the reports were legitimate. But the inspector general’s office did not investigate, corrections spokeswoman Molly Best said. Best did not provide further explanation, and the department hasn’t responded to The Associated Press’ August public records requests.

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Florida prison guards can openly tout associations with white supremacist groups to intimidate inmates and Black colleagues and go unpunished, according to allegations in public documents and interviews with a dozen inmates and current and former employees. Corrections officials regularly receive reports about guards’ membership in the Ku Klux Klan and criminal gangs, according to former prison inspectors and current and former officers.

Still, few such cases are thoroughly investigated by state prison inspectors; many are downplayed by officers charged with policing their own, or discarded as too complicated to pursue.

“I’ve visited more than 50 (prison) facilities and have seen that this is a pervasive problem that is not going away,” said Democratic Florida state Rep. Dianne Hart. “Those who work in our prisons don’t seem to fear people knowing that they’re white supremacists.”

The people AP talked to describe Florida’s prison system as chronically understaffed and nearly out of control. In 2017, three current and former guards who were Ku Klux Klan members were convicted after the FBI caught them planning a Black former inmate’s murder.

This summer, one guard allowed members of a white supremacist inmate group to meet openly inside a Florida prison. A Black officer happened upon the meeting and reported it, they told The AP. The officer said their report about went nowhere, and the guard who allowed it was not punished.

The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not cleared to discuss official prison business.

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Officers who want to blow the whistle on colleagues are often ostracized and labeled a “snitch,” according to current and former officers.

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Mark Caruso, a former sergeant with Florida corrections who was twice fired and reinstated after blowing the whistle on fellow guards, said senior officers-in-charge have the power to censor allegations of corrupt behavior. This keeps reports inside prison walls.

Caruso worked at three prisons in central Florida and reported inmate beatings and officer misconduct multiple times. He was fired after reporting on a colleague at the first prison where he worked as a sergeant, he said.

In 2019, at his third new prison, he was greeted with signs on an employee bulletin board where his name had been crossed out and “SNITCH” scrawled instead, according to testimony at a union grievance hearing.

Despite the intimidation, Caruso continued reporting illegal activity.

“I have reported people when physically seeing them abuse inmates,” he testified in another grievance hearing earlier this year. The AP obtained video of the hearing.

After seeing his reports go nowhere, Caruso went directly to the Office of Inspector General, who also didn’t follow up, he said.

Caruso was eventually fired again after officials said he’d failed to report an inmate beating — one Caruso said he did not actually witness. He said his firing was retaliation.

After the three guards in Florida were captured on FBI recordings plotting a Black inmate’s murder upon his release, Florida corrections spokeswoman Michelle Glady insisted there was no indication of a wider problem of white supremacists working in the prisons, so the state would not investigate further.

But Florida has grappled with this issue for decades. In the early 2000s, the corrections department was forced by a St. Petersburg Times expose to investigate a clique of guards who all carried rope keychains with a noose. The state investigated, interviewing the white guards who were known to carry the noose keychains, and eventually cleared them all.

“This is a pattern all over the country,” said Paul Wright, a former inmate who co-founded the prisoner-rights publication Prison Legal News. Wright helped expose Ku Klux Klan members working in a Washington state prison in the 1990s and has since reported cases of Nazis and klan members working as officers in California, New York and many other states.

“There’s an institutional acceptance of this type of racism,” Wright said.

Florida state Rep. Hart has called for a federal investigation. The FBI said it would neither confirm nor deny if such an investigation had been launched, but Greg Ehrie, former chief of the FBI’s New York domestic terrorism squad who now works with the Anti-Defamation League, said it is likely.

“I would be extremely surprised if this wasn’t an open bureau investigation,” he said.

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Meanwhile, reports of racist abuse continue, according to inmates and current and former Florida corrections employees.

In late September, at another Panhandle prison, a 25-year-old Black inmate reported being beaten by a white officer who said “You’re lucky I didn’t have my spray on me, cuz I would gas yo Black ass.” The inmate’s lip was split open and his face swollen.

The inmate’s family requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

His mother reported the incident to the Inspector General’s office on Oct. 1. The office sent an investigator to interview her son, according to emails provided by the family. But in the end the IG did not investigate further.

The officer continued working in the inmate’s dorm, and threatened him, the inmate said in letters home.

“All them is a click (sic), a gang. Ya feel me, they all work together,” the inmate wrote in October. For weeks, he sent desperate letters saying he was still being terrorized.

“Don’t let up Mom. This has extremely messed up my mental. Got me shell shock, feel less of a man, violated ya feel me? But I love you.”

She eventually helped him get transferred in early November to a facility with a reputation for being even more lawless and brutal, according to the family and a current officer. He is four years into a 12-year sentence for attempted robbery with a gun or deadly weapon.

“I do look forward to seeing my son one day,” the mother told AP. “I’m overwhelmed, tired and doing my best to hold on for my son’s sake.”

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Michael Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.

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Email AP’s Global Investigations Team at investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/. See other work at https://www.apnews.com/hub/ap-investigations.

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Follow Jason Dearen on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/JHDearen