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SPLC suit: Florida teen raped, beaten in prison initiation ritual

A minor at the Sumter Correctional Institution in Florida was brutally beaten and raped as part of a prison initiation ritual that was ignored by a guard, according to a federal lawsuit filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Florida Institutional Legal Services Project of Florida Legal Services.

The minor, R.W., endured a beating by more than six other youths as part of an initiation rite known as a “test of heart,” while a prison guard failed to come to his aid. R.W. was cut multiple times with sharpened barbed wire, choked until unconscious and raped with a broomstick.

“R.W. suffered a nightmare at Sumter,” said Miriam Haskell, SPLC attorney. “Unfortunately, his experience is not unique. A culture of brutality persists within the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC), and what R.W. endured is just another example of why children do not belong in the adult prison system.”

Bruce A. Kiser Jr., the officer on duty at the time and defendant in the lawsuit, was stationed immediately in front of the area where the attack occurred for the very purpose of supervising the youths involved, according to the suit. Yet he did nothing to stop the beating, and never reported the attack. An investigation by the FDOC’s Office of the Inspector General noted Kiser’s inaction and recommended the matter be reviewed for possible administrative action. Despite that recommendation – and FDOC Secretary Julie Jones’ commitment to a “new accountability” – Kiser remains employed.

Numerous complaints related to violence and tests of heart have been brought to the attention of the FDOC, yet this culture of brutality continues. Last month, the department agreed to pay $700,000 to settle a lawsuit by a youth who was permanently injured in a test of heart at Lancaster Correctional Institution. In 2014, a youth died from injuries reportedly sustained in a similar attack.

Children as young as 14 are incarcerated in Florida’s youthful offender prisons, which are part of the adult prison system and among the most brutal facilities in the state. On any given day there are approximately 140 minors incarcerated in Florida prisons. The state incarcerates more children in adult prisons than any other state in the country, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Most were tried as adults as a result of “direct file,” a procedure in which prosecutors transfer a child’s juvenile charges to adult criminal court without any judicial oversight.

Advocates around the state are calling on the Florida Legislature to keep more children out of adult prison by requiring that a judge – not just a prosecutor – determine whether a case should be tried in adult court.

The filing of R.W.’s lawsuit coincides with Children’s Week at the Florida Legislature. During this week, children and youth advocates from around the state gather in Tallahassee to raise critical issues affecting Florida’s children, including education, health, safety and abuse prevention.

“We need more accountability at all levels,” said Karen Garcia whose son, Bryce, was released last year from a youthful offender prison. “My son told me stories about inhumane treatment, getting hit by guards, mental abuse and guards opening closets to let kids fight. Whenever I raised these concerns, I got the runaround, from classification officers up to the warden.”

In October, the SPLC and other advocates sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice calling on the federal government to investigate horrific conditions in Florida prisons, including for incarcerated youth.