As the Herald previously reported, Florida prisons have gone to great lengths to withhold video footage and other documents from news outlets, as well as family members of inmates who have died in custody.
To keep from releasing records, the agency has cited medical privacy laws and legal exemptions; sharing video footage specifically, it said, could jeopardize a facility’s security system and endanger prison personnel.
Whitney’s film, perhaps, underscored other reasons Florida’s Department of Corrections is keeping videos and records under wraps.
We’re going to “show y’all … how we live in here that y’all ain’t seen,” said one inmate participating in the documentary.
From scene to scene, Whitney’s footage revealed an unkempt and decaying environment and demonstrates a lack of attention by some corrections officers.
In one nighttime video narrated by Whitney in a hushed voice, a guard passed by his prison cell carrying a flashlight, yet never glanced inside. He remained oblivious to Whitney, who was openly filming at the time.
“They don’t check to see if we’re living. They don’t check to see if we’re safe,” Whitney said.
The video confirmed that homemade weapons and violence are hallmarks of life at Martin Correctional Institution, which the Herald said had 31 deaths in the past six years, including five homicides. Whitney modeled a makeshift stab-proof vest for the camera in one scene; in others, prisoners held a homemade knife and a “lock-and-belt weapon.”
The film documented mold covering the kitchen and mice popping in through crumbling walls. It also memorialized Hurricane Irma in 2017, when inmates from other prisons were transported to and housed at the facility, sleeping on the floor.
Most saliently, though, it captured the widespread drug use inside the prison.
“You got the war on drugs on the street, but once we get here, you don’t care about the drugs,” he said to the camera.
Scene after scene showed inmates slumped over, stumbling to the ground, dragged across the floor and “twaking out.” One man lay face down in a pool of his own blood and another was rolled out on a gurney.
The culprit, Whitney said, was K2, a synthetic cannabinoid also known as “twak;” the Herald listed the drug as the most frequently confiscated contraband and the leading cause of overdose deaths.
Whitney continued, “You know you might not wake up any day you smoke that.”
The Florida Department of Corrections Office of Inspector General has opened an investigation into the video.
The agency wrote in an email to The Washington Post on Monday: “The Department uses every tool at their disposal to mitigate violence and contraband within our institutions. Correctional Officers are diligent in their efforts to search inmates and common areas to eradicate weapons and remove dangerous and illegal contraband. At the forefront of our priorities is an agencywide effort to recruit and retain correctional officers statewide.”
Inmate-produced footage is extraordinarily rare, even more so when it’s trafficked out of a prison, Ron McAndrew, a prison consultant and former warden, told the Herald.
While gruesome and graphic photographs from inside prisons in Alabama and Mississippi were leaked and posted online this year, the first example of footage from a contraband phone making its way online, he said, was in July at another Florida facility. A prison captain and two guards were arrested and fired after a video of officers beating an inmate was uploaded to YouTube.
Under Florida law, contraband cellphones can result in new felony charges and add prison time to an inmate’s sentence. Or, there’s the threat of solitary confinement — a fate Whitney has experienced, the Herald reported.
On Sept. 19, Jordyn Gilley-Nixon, a prison reform advocate and former inmate, uploaded two minutes of Whitney’s footage to YouTube. Since then, prison officials have housed Whitney in isolation. If he’s released from solitary confinement, Whitney, whose drug-trafficking sentence ends in 2040, promised to continue filming.
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