By Meg Laughlin, Times Staff Writer
Published Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Two more state prisons have acknowledged incidents in which guards zapped visiting children with handheld stun guns, bringing to three the number of facilities where the unapproved demonstration was used on "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day."
On Friday, the Department of Corrections said that several kids visiting Franklin Correctional Institution in the Panhandle on April 24 were shocked by a guard who was demonstrating what corrections officers do at work. On Tuesday, the department revealed that children visiting Indian River Correctional Institution in Vero Beach and Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown were also zapped with 50,000-volt electronic immobilization devices.
The devices used on the children, who are between the ages of 8 and 14, require bodily contact. Used on unruly inmates, the devices usually knock victims to the ground, cause a few minutes of disorientation and leave two small burn marks.
The daughter of the warden at Indian River was among the victims.
Frank Gonzalez, the owner of Self-Defense USA, a large stun gun company in San Diego, describes the 50,000-volt shock as "similar to grabbing a live wire in your house with a wet hand — like a hard punch in the stomach with the added trauma of electricity running through your body."
The Department of Corrections did not release the number of children, or their conditions or names. But Matthew Foster, an attorney for one of the children who was injured at Franklin, said that more than six children were shocked at that facility.
His client, a 12-year-old girl, sustained abrasions and trauma when the powerful jolt knocked her to the ground, requiring a doctor's treatment, said Foster, who asked that neither the child nor her father be named. Her mother works at the prison and gave permission for the demonstration, according to Foster, but the father, who is separated from the mother, did not approve and has sued.
"These devices are designed for stopping dangerous prisoners and can cause injury or death," Foster said. "They are not for experimenting on children."
Upon hearing rumors that Franklin was not an isolated incident, George Sapp, deputy secretary of institutions for the Department of Corrections, began calling wardens around the state. His survey turned up two more similar incidents on the same day, said Gretl Plessinger, a corrections spokeswoman.
Ten employees — five at Indian River, which incarcerates teenage males between 14 and 18, and five at Martin, which incarcerates adult males — have been suspended while the incidents are investigated. At Franklin, a guard was fired last week.
Plessinger said it appeared the three incidents were "separate and unrelated," with no coordination or planning linking them. But the possibility will receive further scrutiny, she said.
"There are very clear rules about when, where and who these devices are to be used on, and all officers are clearly trained in this. So, we don't yet know how this could have happened at three facilities on the same day," Plessinger said.
The suspended employees at Martin and Indian River did not return phone calls from the Times.
State Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, chairman of the House Council on Criminal and Civil Justice Policy, said he and other legislators will be watching to see what the Correction Department investigation determines.
"If we think the department is not thorough and is taking care of its own, we'll step in," Robaina said. "But first Walt McNeil (secretary of the Department of Corrections) deserves the chance to handle this internally."
The 10 suspended employees, who are on administrative leave with pay, received a letter telling them that when the investigation is completed they will either be notified of their return date or told not to come back to work.
Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8068.
Indian River Correctional Institution: Maj. Seth Adams, 19 years service; Sgt. Charmaine Davis, 6 years; Region IV Officer Steve Rich, 5 years; Sgt. Linda Rosada, 15 years; Lt. P.J. Weisner, 11 years.
Martin Correctional Institution: Lt. Russel Bourgault, 14 years; secretary specialist Annette Ennis, 3 years; correctional officer Randy Kartner, 5 years; secretary specialist Kory L. Rupp, 4 years; correctional officer Thomas Skillings, 4 years.