Dressed in a pair of boxers and weighing 150 pounds, Michel Hernandez faces a group of five Florida prison officers wearing full tactical gear who slide open the door of the Florida Department of Corrections transfer van.
It is 7:40 p.m. last October 25, and Hernandez has just arrived from a prison nearly three hours away in Miami-Dade County, where he had allegedly assaulted a group of officers. Now, with noticeable bruising on his face, Hernandez is roughly yanked out of the van by men shrouded in helmets.
By the time he is finished with his transfer to Charlotte Correctional Institution 10 minutes later, Hernandez will be bleeding from fresh wounds on his head, barely able to stand or walk. The prisoner had run into what officers call “the welcoming committee.” He’d been punched repeatedly, slammed onto the pavement, and gang-tackled into the corner of a cell, leaving a smear of blood on the wall, all while defenseless — restrained in leg shackles and handcuffs, including a “black box” device securing his wrists to his midsection.
The encounter is captured in an official prison video recording — which was provided by sources to the Miami Herald.
The leak of the Hernandez video is exceedingly rare. The Florida Department of Corrections has successfully fought lawsuits by news organizations, including by the Herald, seeking to obtain video from inside prison walls. The release of internal videos, the agency says, jeopardizes security. In the Hernandez case, the agency also said it “contains medical information.”
But the video also offers support for what prisoners, their loved ones, and countless attorneys litigating against the department have long charged — that violence against inmates in the Florida prison system is ingrained and often covered up rather than addressed, and that there are few independent checks on wardens.
“I don’t understand why a man clearly in chains is such a risk that he needs to face severe physical force, including punches from trained law enforcement,” said Florida House Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat and one of the few lawmakers to take an interest in the conditions endured by state prisoners. “People treat animals better than this.”
The Department of Corrections found no policy violations or criminal acts in the video. But two former inspectors who were trained to review use-of-force videos in Florida prisons said the officers appeared to use excessive force and their reports didn’t match what was visible on the video. Several former and current correctional officers came to the same conclusion.
Hernandez absorbed his first beating while being escorted through the prison courtyard. He can be seen in the video suddenly falling forward, with officers appearing to push him toward the ground before dog-piling on top of him and punching him.
Sgt. Dane Edwards, who is grasping Hernandez’ left arm when the inmate falls, wrote in a use-of-force report obtained by the Herald that the prisoner “became disorderly by dropping his body weight to the ground and attempting to pull away” from officers.
But correctional officers and use-of-force experts who reviewed the footage for the Herald said the video seemed to tell a different story. Aubrey Land, a former Florida prison inspector turned whistleblower, said, “if you watch the way [Hernandez] is walking it appears his feet stop and he goes forward.”
“This strongly suggests someone stepped on his shackles and caused him to fall forward,” Land said.
Gary York, a former inspector who reviewed use-of-force incidents in Florida prisons for 12 years, singled out four punches thrown to Hernandez’s head and shoulders later while he was being pinned down in a cell. Those blows were not documented or explained in two use-of-force reports obtained by the Herald.
“That right there is big-time trouble,” York said. “If it’s not in the report, and it’s on the video — this is something the state attorney needs to look at.”
After the Herald noted several inconsistencies between the reports and the video, the department responded that its Office of Inspector General had “reviewed the incident, including the documentation, and it was approved due to the inmate’s actions.”
“The work of the Florida Department of Corrections is difficult, and our staff face adverse and dangerous situations daily, where they must make split-second decisions to protect themselves and protect the inmates,” the department said in a statement. “At times the use of physical force is necessary.”
The agency would not specify which “actions” it was referring to or what evidence it possessed.
The Hernandez tape offers concrete evidence of the type of physical violence that is considered permissible in Florida prisons, where planned procedures such as cell extractions and applications of chemicals, colloquially called “gassings,” are collected on video but never seen by the public. The videos are sent to the department’s central office for review and approval.
“I don’t believe that an organization should be policing itself,” said David Rembert, a former Texas correctional officer turned criminal justice professor at Prairie View A&M University. “If you’re an IG [inspector general], you get a paycheck from the department.”
Texas prisons have a system similar to Florida’s, where the Office of Inspector General investigates recorded uses of force.
Charlotte is a prison compound north of Fort Myers with a longtime reputation for abusive treatment of inmates. That includes the alleged rape of an inmate last month in which the victim said staff made light of the attack after he reported it, according to an official report. The alleged attacker was recently charged.
The intake of Hernandez was supervised by Capt. Moses Frost.
Frost moved up the ranks quickly at Charlotte, arriving as a sergeant
and rising to captain on what his colleagues described as a fast track. He and the Charlotte warden, Derek Snider, worked together at Martin Correctional Institution before both moving to Charlotte.
In Florida prisons, wardens typically review all use-of-force videos. York, the former inspector, said the warden can flag a use of force for closer review, and should have in this case if for no other reason than the four punches thrown at the end.
Through public records requests, the Herald sought all use-of-force reports documenting Hernandez’s arrival at the prison. Although the records were paid for more than a month ago, they have not been produced.
The Herald obtained two of those reports through unofficial channels.
In the video, it is difficult to determine how much — of even if — Hernandez is resisting. The camera’s view is blocked by the officers who appear to be assaulting the inmate, sometimes while shouting “Stop resisting!” “Stop fighting!” or possibly “Stop biting!”
Several current and former Florida prison officers told the Miami Herald that in such instances officers will sometimes deliberately block the camera’s view.
“They always do that,” said one former officer who worked on “cell extraction” teams at Charlotte. “That’s called our block man.”
Land, the former inspector, noted that Frost himself, the captain, stands in the way of the camera at times.
Rembert, the onetime Texas officer, said Florida’s policy on how to record a “use-of-force” event is weak compared to other states, including his own, which has a comparable prison system.
“In Texas, they want to see that offender from head to toe. They’re not practicing that,” he said of Florida.
The Department of Corrections declined to make Frost, the warden or FDC Secretary Mark Inch available for an interview.
In a letter to the Miami Herald, responding to an earlier request for comment on the video, Hernandez said he had penned several pleas for anyone outside the prison walls to investigate the two “brutal assaults” he faced upon his arrival at Charlotte. He said those pleas included a letter to the prison system’s Office of Inspector General, tasked with investigating potential crimes, including by staff, in FDC facilities.
It’s unclear if his letters ever made it to their destination, and the Department of Corrections refused to say if it had received them.
Hernandez gave written authorization for an in-person interview with Herald reporters, but the Department of Corrections refused access, citing a policy that states inmates in restricted housing are forbidden from speaking to reporters.
In his letter to the Herald, Hernandez revealed that he had been placed on property restriction, meaning he had no access to clothes, bedding, or any other property, from Oct. 25 to Nov. 4. He remains on a status known as close management, or CM.
Hernandez, 37, has been incarcerated since 2013 for a robbery with a deadly weapon and an escape attempt. He is scheduled for release in June 2022.
The Welcoming Committee
Right before his crew pulls Hernandez from the van, Captain Frost gives an on-camera briefing on what Hernandez had allegedly done at Martin Correctional.
“He bit two officers and assaulted another, so we’re going to take all precautions,” Frost says, adding that Hernandez is to be cuffed using a black box restraint.
York, the former inspector, said what happens next is reminiscent of a similar, but higher-profile welcoming committee beating at Charlotte that later morphed into days of torture, resulting in the death of the inmate and the indictments of nine officers in 1998.
York said it’s not uncommon for inmates who assault an officer at one prison to be beaten when they are transferred to another.
“That is a normal routine that goes on in the Florida Department of Corrections,” he said. “When an inmate assaults an officer, they want to have a welcoming committee waiting for them.”
But the practice is not uniform. One former Charlotte corrections officer said he had transferred inmates out by van after they were accused of a stabbing against staff. Just one other officer was involved in that transfer and there was no tactical gear necessary, he said.
In Hernandez’s transfer, the crew of geared-up officers isn’t the only other break from the norm.
Even though it is October 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, Hernandez isn’t wearing a mask. He also isn’t wearing a uniform, instead clad only in his underwear. Former Florida prison officials said that was a flagrant policy violation, but the Department of Corrections refused to confirm that it was against policy when asked by the Herald.
Land, the former FDC inspector, said welcoming committees are a tradition.
“That just doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “It’s happened many, many times in the Department of Corrections, and will happen many more times over the years.”
Land left the department under contentious circumstances. He made headlines five years ago when he was denied formal whistleblower status after he and other inspectors demanded the reopening of an investigation into the death of an inmate with severe ailments who was repeatedly gassed by officers at Franklin Correctional Institution. The inmate was found dead on the floor of his cell, coated with orange chemical residue.
Land said the death investigation excused staff from culpability and was a whitewash. Land said he immediately faced reprisals for challenging the official narrative and sued along with others for retaliation. Although the department acknowledged no wrongdoing, it paid $800,000 to Land and others to settle the lawsuit. It was the end of Land’s career with the department.
Tripped and beaten
Though the video was leaked to the Herald by a source who suggested Hernandez is tripped, reporters who shared it with experts did not include that assessment to avoid coloring their opinions of the raw footage.
Rembert, the former Texas officer, independently concluded that Hernandez is tripped.
“Either somebody stepped on that chain and he fell forward, or they tripped him as he was walking,” Rembert said after reviewing the footage. “ … He dropped real fast. The way he fell doesn’t seem natural.”
There is no proof he is tripped because the inmate’s ankles are not visible due to the way the camera is angled.
Land, the former Florida inspector, said it appears to him that Hernandez is likely tripped, and he noticed something else. It looks to him that Hernandez is attempting to recover his balance, but Sgt. Edwards “quickly places a hand on top of his head and forced him face down onto the ground.”
“At the same time the second officer [Sgt. Juan Basilio] applies downward force with his upper body and the inmate is covered by both the first and second escorting officers on the ground,” Land said.
That’s when the dog-pile starts.
In his use-of-force report, Sgt. Edwards wrote that Hernandez was “redirected to the ground, while I was giving him several orders to cease his disorderly actions.” The video does not show Edwards giving any orders to Hernandez as he drops to the ground.
Former correctional officers and inspectors told the Herald they are trained not to use force on an inmate wearing a black box restraint because they have no way of breaking their fall or otherwise protecting themselves.
Land said a former deputy secretary of the Department of Corrections issued a directive several years ago to that effect. In fact, he said, officers are trained to prevent inmates from falling while wearing a black box.
The Department of Corrections refused to say whether such a directive exists.
Another former corrections officer from Charlotte who reviewed the video said from the way the fall occurred strongly suggests one of the officers steps on Hernandez’s ankle chains.
“He went down quick,” the officer said. “Normally you’d have a stumble or whatever. And that inmate knows he’s in a black box. He probably just wants to go to bed. He’s not going to fall [deliberately] and do that. Even if he does, you pick him up. You don’t just take him to the ground.”
“The only way you’d be able to tell for sure is from a camera in the front, but there’s no cameras in that courtyard,” the officer added.
In justifying the punches he’s seen throwing while Hernandez is on the pavement, Sgt. Edwards wrote that Hernandez was being disorderly and “continued his resistance by attempting to bring his arms and knees to his chest by trying to place himself in attempt [sic] to defeat the team members in regaining control of him.”
“I delivered several distractionary strikes to Inmate Hernandez’s shoulder area in order to gain compliance of Inmate Hernandez,” Edwards wrote in the report.
But the video shows Edwards throwing hard punches with his left hand as soon as Hernandez hits the concrete, and without any orders being given.
Land, the former inspector, said it is unclear whether Edwards is hitting Hernandez in the head or elsewhere in the upper body.
Like other former and current prison officials who reviewed the video, Rembert questioned the need for any of the aggressive actions. He said there is no evidence on the video that Hernandez is trying to resist — and that even if Hernandez is resisting, he could have been picked up and carried to his cell by the team of burly officers in tactical gear. The restraints on Hernandez’s hands and ankles limit his ability to resist or pick himself up and run, Rembert said.
Rembert took particular issue with the operator of the camera, noting the operator appears to lay back, often filming the action at elbow-level with other officers.
“When the offender is walking, you should be able to see his whole body,” Rembert said. “But they’re blocking him, so you don’t know what they might be doing. That’s a problem. That really upset me.”
Before officers remove Hernandez from the van, Frost, the captain, says they will be using a “spit shield,” a bag that goes over the inmate’s head to prevent him from biting or spitting. But it isn’t until after the dog-pile that Frost has officers apply the spit shield to Hernandez’s head.
Former correctional officers said the bag is sometimes used to hide head and facial injuries from the camera, and York, the former inspector, also pointed to that possibility. Once Hernandez is inside the prison, blood and welts are visible through the shield, which is blood-stained on the outside. His shoulder is also bloody.
“I never saw him spitting at anybody, and as soon as the tripping incident finished and he got inside, boom, the spit mask went on,” York said. “It’s very possible injuries happened during that tripping that were covered up.”
Once inside, officers escort Hernandez to a holding cell, where the visibly wobbly inmate is ordered to drop to his knees. Allowed back on his feet, he is quickly slammed into a corner of the cell, leaving a smear of blood on the wall
At this point, Hernandez is forced to the floor by at least four officers, and one of them, who is impossible to identify because of the helmets, begins punching him.
“Any time we would see punches thrown like that, we would have to send it to the state attorney for review,” said York. “We would have to. It was mandatory.”
Only 16 states have independent oversight of their prisons, according to Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs who studies prison systems.
Though the Department of Corrections describes its Office of Inspector General as an “independent law enforcement agency,” Deitch, who just published an academic article on the topic, said that Florida in practice has “no meaningful independent oversight.”
The departmental IG model, Deitch said, simply didn’t allow for it.
“There has to be an independent body that monitors what’s happening inside prisons,” she said. “It creates a form of informal social control, it adds transparency to a very closed system, and it increases protections for people in custody.”
Miami Herald investigative reporter Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.