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At a violent Florida prison, a death foreshadowed

MIAMI – Jerry Washington’s terror began shortly after he filed a grievance claiming that a corrections officer at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution in Milton, Fla., had grabbed his buttocks and called him “sweet cheeks.”

Within days of his filing a sexual harassment complaint, the officer and two others told Washington that they were going to kill him, Washington wrote in another grievance.

On Sept. 10, 2013, he sent his sister a copy of the grievances and warned her that if anything happened to him, it would be no accident.

Seven days later, Washington was dead.

The department’s investigative summary into Washington’s death is so heavily redacted that no one reading it – including his family – would know what happened to him before he died. The report doesn’t say whether he was taken to a hospital or whether anyone did anything to help him.

But Washington’s words, and those of his fellow inmates, allege a climate of racism, brutality, negligence and sexual harassment at Santa Rosa, which is located at the tip of the state’s Panhandle.

In letters to the family, two of Washington’s fellow inmates claimed that several corrections officers warned the inmate that they were going to “f--- him up” when they returned to the prison for their weekend shift.

“They were going to get him that weekend, which would have been on pick-a-n---- Friday,” one wrote Washington’s family, using a slang version of the n-word. “It’s a saying that the officers have ... that comes from slavery when the master goes to the slave quarters on Friday to pick a n---- to hang.”

In detail, the inmate, whose name is being withheld by the Miami Herald, claimed that one of the sergeants placed drugs in Washington’s food that day and an orderly served the 5-foot-8 inmate his poisoned meal that afternoon.

By dinnertime, Washington was seriously ill, inmates told Department of Corrections inspectors.

He was found sprawled in his cell at 9:20 p.m. Sept. 16, but he was still alive, and officers and other staff reported he was able to sit up and talk.

The next nine hours are a mystery.

Here are excerpts from the inspector general report:

“Later in the evening, (redacted) stated she was instructed by (redacted) and report to (redacted) D-dormitory. (redacted) and the infirmary officer [later identified as Officer William Hopkins] went with her to D-dormitory. When they arrived at D-dormitory, inmate Washington was sitting (redacted). Inmate Washington was assisted (redacted) by officers.

“(redacted) and officer Hopkins took inmate Washington (redacted) and placed inmate Washington (redacted) inmate Washington, who appeared (redacted).”

A nurse told investigators that she overheard Washington tell officer Hopkins that Officer Chad Pugh had threatened to take him out of his cell and beat him, the DOC report states.

Nine hours later, about 6 a.m. Sept. 17, Washington was inexplicably dead.

What isn’t redacted from the report are most of statements provided to the DOC’s investigator by seven inmates – most of whom told the same story: that Washington feared for his life and that Sgt. Marcus Stokes, Pugh and Officer Charles Asbel were conspiring to harm him because he had filed complaints against them.

One inmate, Aaron Porter, went further – stating to inspectors that he overheard Stokes, Pugh and Asbel planning their revenge Sept. 16.

After Washington fell ill, inmates said, he began asking for medical attention. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m. Sept. 16, Porter began kicking on his cell door to alert officers that Washington was in distress.

Officers placed leg restraints and handcuffs secured at the waist on Washington, the DOC report said.

“Stokes told (Washington’s) roommate to pack up or he was going to get it too,” the inmate who wrote to the Washington family said in a letter.

“That part is on camera too,” the inmate wrote. “After lunch they started showers and day room for us. They tried to trick (Washington) to come out of his cell, as he was walking toward the showers, he was staggering unsteadily.”

Washington’s sister, Naomi Washington, who lives with their 80-year-old mother in Fort Lauderdale, recalled: “The chaplain called me and told me that Jerry had taken 50 pills. I can tell you that Jerry was never suicidal. Jerry never would have committed suicide.”

Washington’s death, like many at the prison, was never investigated by outside law enforcement. The DOC didn’t notify the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said Washington’s death was thoroughly investigated, and the agency has recently changed its policies and that FDLE is now called to review every prison death.

It’s not clear what, if any, investigation was done by the local medical examiner, Andrea N. Minyard, who ruled the death a suicide.

Lewis said under federal law, the agency is required to redact all medical information about an inmate, unless the inmate had previously signed a waiver or if the family obtains legal authority through the courts after an inmate’s death.

“It’s not like we have some marker-happy person working in the basement of our building and is crazy,” Lewis said. “This is what the law tells us to do.”

The law he invoked is the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. It prohibits hospitals and others from releasing information on patients’ condition. HIPAA can be interpreted expansively or narrowly. Under an expansive interpretation, the description of a punch in the nose is medical information if it leaves the recipient with a broken nose.

Washington’s family consulted with several lawyers after his death, but no one would take the case pro bono. The family has no money to pay for a lawyer to go to court to get an unredacted copy of the investigation into Washington’s death.

Washington, who had a long rap sheet with arrests dating back to when he was a juvenile, was serving several life sentences for various crimes, including attempted murder, armed robbery and burglary.

Earlene Washington, the inmate’s mother, said her son had a drug problem that led him into a life of crime. But she said he had adapted to his prison existence and was trying to keep to himself and stay out of trouble.

“Trust me, he was not afraid of the officers, but he was afraid of not knowing how they were going to do it and when they were going to do it,’’ his mother said.

His sister, Naomi, said for weeks before his death she had called the governor’s office demanding that her brother be transferred out of Santa Rosa, one of the state’s more violent institutions.

“I begged and begged them to get him out of there,” his sister said. “All they would do was refer me back to the Department of Corrections.”

Her brother’s last letter, written Sept. 10, says that an investigator from the prison system’s inspector general’s office had visited him about his sexual harassment complaint.

“It took five days,” Jerry Washington wrote. “This is the fastest I ever had a complaint come back to me. And like they always do, the officer lied and say he did not come to my window and make threats.”

He was worried that the officers would retaliate, write up a false disciplinary report and then use chemical agents to quell his supposed bad behavior.

“I just want you to know how they are playing,” Washington wrote. “I got real, real, real bad blood pressure, and if they gas me and jump on me (and) I happen to have a stroke or a heart attack ... don’t ya’ll believe nothing they try to tell y’all.”