Prison officials halt releasing videotapes showing use of force by guards

 TALLAHASSEE — The killing of Death Row inmate Frank Valdez by prison guards a decade ago caused state corrections officials to use video cameras to record when officers get forceful with inmates.
For years, Department of Corrections officials handed over the tapes, sometimes grudgingly, to the public, media and lawyers

Not anymore.

Corrections officials now contend the videos, including those used to determine if guards’ actions against prisoners was appropriate, are exempt from the state’s broad public records laws.

Civil rights advocates say the change is a major shift in policy in an agency under the purview of Gov. Charlie Crist, whose first official action after his swearing-in as governor was to create the “Office of Open Government.”

“This whole thing of Charlie Crist saying there’s transparency in government is just BS, at least as far as the Department of Corrections,” said civil rights lawyer Randall Berg, executive director and founder of the Miami-based Florida Justice Institute.

But department officials contend that the policy hasn’t changed in years and if copies of the tapes were available in the past, they shouldn’t have been.

Keeping the tapes private is a security issue, Department of Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil said.

“It is a significant problem for us if we allow videos to go out into the public and people can see exactly how we’re laid out,” he said.

Lawyers and the public will now have to sue the department to get the tapes, a costly and time-consuming process.

“Of course the video may mean everything in terms of whether I file a lawsuit or not,” said Tallahassee civil rights attorney James Cook.

Lawyers for inmates say that corrections officials have made it increasingly onerous – and expensive – to access public records. Berg said the department has “battened down the hatches” and has also thwarted families of inmates who have died in prison from getting access to the details of the deaths, citing state and federal medical records privacy laws.

“They are becoming very difficult to deal with, very obstructionist, and it’s just been in the last year,” said Cook, who said he recently was denied access to a tape but was told he could get a redacted transcript of it – for about $400.

DOC spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger disagreed.

“It’s just the opposite,” she said. “We are starting to do more and more investigations as a result of other officers coming forward and giving information.”

The videotapes are used for internal investigations, Plessinger said.

In April, six Florida State Prison guards were fired and five others were put on administrative leave after being caught on tape beating up a prisoner during a power outage.

Because the power went out, screens monitoring prisoners went blank, causing the guards to believe the cameras were turned off.

A federal judge in Jacksonville ruled last year that two mentally ill inmates at the same prison suffered cruel and unusual punishment at the hands of prison guards who gassed them with pepper spray and other chemicals while the prisoners were in their cells. The gassings were recorded on video.

DOC officials began using the cameras after Death Row inmate Frank Valdez was beaten to death by prison guards at the same prison in Starke in 1999.



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