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Stories from the field: SPLC works to end violence in Florida youth prisons

As I combed through the incident reports involving youthful offenders at Florida prisons, the horror stories emerged. On page after page, the words repeated:

Help me.

I am fearful for my life.

Please place me in protective custody.

I have just been TOH’d.

These were the words of youths imprisoned at Lancaster Correctional Institution in Central Florida. Some of them had been beaten by other prisoners during attacks known as “tests of heart.” Others had been threatened with such attacks.

A “test of heart” – or “TOH” – is a term I have come to know all too well in my research into Florida’s youthful offender prisons. New arrivals are told by other prisoners to hand over their money or food, or suffer the consequences – a “test of heart.” The prison’s guards not only allowed the attacks, but sometimes condoned them.

I was stunned by what I read in the incident reports from Lancaster, the largest youthful offender prison operated by the Florida Department of Corrections. Recently, the agency stopped sending people classified as “youthful offenders” – some of the youngest people in the system – to Lancaster. They’re now incarcerated at four other prisons across the state.

Unfortunately, tests of heart weren’t unique to Lancaster. The violence can be found at other youthful offender facilities in Florida. The reports I read from Lancaster merely exemplified the violent conditions the SPLC is working to end throughout Florida. One of the reports described a young person who had been a victim of two “test of heart” incidents where he was “hit multiple times in the face, head, and ribs with a lock in a sock.”

How did this happen?

Did the reporting officer really learn of this incident for the first time after seeing the victim walk into the cafeteria with a huge gash on his eye? Or did the guard assigned to that dorm look the other way as it happened?

Another youth was called into a room by a prisoner only to be beaten by five to seven others.

This violence is even more disturbing in light of the fact that the prison had been housing children since its inception in 1971. Lancaster started as a co-ed juvenile detention facility under the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. In 1979, it was converted to a youthful offender facility as part of an effort to protect incarcerated people under 25 from coming in contact with older prisoners with long criminal histories.

While it was called a “youthful offender facility,” Lancaster was, for all intents and purposes, an adult prison. This remains the case for the other Florida prisons that house youthful offenders. Young people held in these facilities live in terror at night, desperate to protect themselves. One incident report from Lancaster described how a young person in fear of his life urged officials to protect him, showing them the cuts and marks on his body.

I couldn’t help but to think how the young person in that report is someone’s son pleading for help, desperate to be spared from more violence. No one should have to beg for his safety.

Unfortunately, young people in Florida’s youthful offender prisons still find themselves exposed to dangerous situations. Earlier this year, the SPLC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a young person who was beaten and raped with a broomstick as part of a “test of heart” assault at the Sumter Correctional Institution, about 100 miles south of Lancaster.

He was just 17.

The lawsuit describes how a guard was stationed in front of the area where the attack happened but did nothing to stop the beating. He never even reported it. The guard, however, remains employed to this day. The utter disregard for the safety and well-being of young people in these facilities has become sickeningly familiar in Florida.

It must end.

That’s why I will continue my work to uncover these abuses. It’s why I won’t forget the pleas for help in the incident reports. And it’s why the SPLC won’t stop until these young people no longer endure such violence.

Michelle Jack Llosa is a senior community advocate in the SPLC’s Florida office.