- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

MIAMI (AP) - The Department of Corrections said Thursday that five prison employees have been charged with battery on an inmate, the latest in a string of incidents alleging inmate abuse and cover-ups at Florida prisons.

A sixth employee, a captain at Northwest Florida Reception Center in Chipley, was arrested on a charge of official misconduct after allegedly falsifying a report to cover-up the incident, authorities said. According to an arrest report, Captain James Kirkland planned a ‘takedown’ of 31-year-old prisoner Jeremiah Tatum while Tatum was being escorted from his cell to a decontamination shower after being sprayed with chemicals.

Kirkland told the five other officers that he would say Tatum spit in his face during the escort, which would signal the other officers to take him down. A video shows officers slammed Tatum face first into the concrete while he was in leg and hand restraints. Another officer jumped on Tatum’s legs and pinned the prisoner to the ground during the August 5 incident, according to the arrest report.

The affidavit said all five officers later acknowledged that Tatum did not spit on the captain. Kirkland declined comment when reached at his home Thursday night.

The Florida Department of Corrections said all six employees have been fired following an investigation by its office of inspector general.

“These arrests and terminations send a very clear message: we have zero tolerance for criminal activity by our staff. I expect everyone to do what is right and I have restated my commitment to hold those who do not to meet our expectations accountable for their wrongdoing,” Secretary Mike Crews said in a statement.

Last week, the agency announced that employees who commit criminal acts would immediately be placed on administrative leave and the agency would initiate disciplinary action for their dismissal. The measure comes after repeated allegations of systemic abuse, cover-ups and failure to punish guards when inmates are harmed.

Last month, Crews vowed to improve accountability among the agency’s 22,000 staffers after a review of cases files revealed inconsistent punishments for bad behavior.

The Department of Corrections, which oversees 100,000 prisoners, has come under scrutiny following the death of mentally ill inmate Darren Rainey in Miami.

Rainey was placed alone in a locked, closet-like shower in 2012 for more than two hours with hot water measured at up to 180 degrees. Fellow inmates said Rainey, 50, was put in the shower after he had defecated in his cell and refused to clean it up, according to a report by the Miami Herald.

Crews fired the warden, saying it took too long for leaders at Dade Correctional Institution to investigate. But no one has been criminally charged in Rainey’s death.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called for a federal investigation into Rainey’s death and the treatment of other mentally ill inmates in Florida.

Earlier this week, the organization Disability Rights Florida filed a lawsuit against the agency seeking immediate reforms and investigations into complaints of widespread torture and abuse of mentally ill inmates, which it says the agency has ignored for years.

The lawsuit alleged that the culture of abuse at Dade Correctional Institution contributed to the deaths of at least two mentally ill inmates within the past two years.

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