October 30, 2020

Chaos At Indiana's Miami Prison Takes A Toll On Staff

Original story from   WFYI-FM

Article origination WFYI-FM
Miami Correctional Facility, operating since 1998, houses high, medium and minimum security adult males.

Miami Correctional Facility, operating since 1998, houses high, medium and minimum security adult males.

Note: This piece contains descriptions of violence and self-harm that may be disturbing to some readers. 

In late June, Danielle was the only correctional officer working in the medical unit at the Miami Correctional Facility when she heard a noise coming from the bathroom. She knew an inmate had gone in, but Danielle needed someone with her to investigate — entering a men’s bathroom by herself was against policy, she said. She tracked down a nurse, then opened the door. 

“He was trying to hang himself,” said Danielle, who asked to be identified by her middle name because she worried about retaliation. “Not only that, he had tried using the paper towel dispenser to slit his wrists.”

After Danielle got the inmate out of the bathroom, she said a lieutenant walked by and told her to handcuff him.

“I’m still a new officer. I don’t know what to do with him,” she said. “I was all alone.”

Danielle tried to restrain the prisoner, but he turned on her. He got the handcuffs around her neck and began to choke her. 

She managed to break free, then decided the few weeks she had spent working at Miami were enough. She told a lieutenant she was quitting, but she still had to work until the end of her shift, she said. There weren’t enough officers to cover her position. 

On her way out, Danielle turned in her handcuffs. They were still covered in the man’s blood. 

“My last day was my worst day,” she said. “I came home shaking and crying. My family looked at me and said ‘You’re not going back.’”

Indiana’s state prisons have been plagued by staffing issues for years, but the Miami Correctional Facility suffers the most. Five years ago, the prison had nearly 400 custody staff — correctional officers, sergeants and others responsible for security and inmate movement. It now operates with 266, according to the latest monthly report from the Indiana Department of Correction. One third of the Miami prison’s staff positions are vacant, and since May, it has lost more than 30 employees every month. 

Side Effects spoke with eight former employees who left Miami in the past year, most of whom asked not to be named because they worried about retaliation against themselves or people they know still working there. 

They described a prison out of control. 

Violence, they said, is nearly an everyday occurrence. Prisoners stab each other and attack employees. The facility is too short-staffed to prevent such incidents, or quickly respond when they occur. The prison culture seemed to weed out well-intentioned staff, leaving behind those who relish punishing the inmates. 

And they said Miami’s leadership, including warden Bill Hyatte, didn’t care about their wellbeing, even when officers shared thoughts of self-harm. 

Indiana Department of Correction officials declined to be interviewed for this story, and the agency denied requests for documents and security footage related to violent incidents in the prison. 

Side Effects also emailed questions and the allegations in this story to spokesperson David Bursten. 

“Corrections jobs are among the most difficult, and have historically been difficult to fill. The agency has been aggressively recruiting to fill open correctional officer positions at facilities,” he wrote back, adding that a recent pay increase for officers has helped. 

Where possible, we’ve included portions of the agency’s official stance, but Bursten’s written response addressed few of the concerns presented here. 

Everyday violence

For instance, Bursten said the department has conducted staffing analyses for the Miami Correctional Facility to determine how many staff are needed to maintain safety and security. He declined, however, to provide those numbers. 

Former officers told Side Effects the prison desperately needs more staff. Many housing units, each of which can hold more than 200 men, had just one officer to keep the peace. At times, there were fewer than 20 officers to staff the whole prison, which held more than 3,000 men in June. (The population has since been reduced to about 2,800 inmates, according to an August report).

Stabbings happened all the time, former employees said. Danielle described one incident as a “full-on stabbing party” in another unit of the prison. She heard about it over her radio, but couldn’t leave her unit unattended. 

“The officers are radioing for help, and your heart breaks because there’s nothing you can do,” she said, adding that the incident wasn’t resolved until off-duty personnel arrived. 

A former sergeant said he was alone outside with a group of men when one tried to attack him. The inmate was afraid of other prisoners in his housing unit, and going after an officer guaranteed he would be moved. 

“Luckily, he didn’t make contact,” the sergeant said. “If he would have stabbed me? Well, there’s no telling how long it would have lasted.”

The National Guard arrived over the summer, but relief was limited. The guardsmen weren’t allowed to interact directly with inmates, former staff said, and were confined to specific rooms. 

The former Miami staff also confirmed what inmates and their families had told Side Effects last month: Not all correctional officers wore masks, even while they were in close quarters with the inmates. When the prison saw a spike in COVID-19 cases in September, some of the inmates blamed the maskless officers. 

At that point, Miami had been locked down for weeks. Inmates said the sack meals delivered to their cells were often spoiled and that they were losing weight. They were confined to their cells except for the occasional reprieve, such as a doctor’s appointment or shower. Officially, inmates are supposed to be let out for showers at least every two to three days, but some officers and inmates told Side Effects wait times stretched to more than a week. 

What happened next was inevitable, according to former staff members who heard about the incident. About 50 sick inmates were moved to the gym, with one officer to keep watch. The men rebelled and took over the area. 

The Department of Correction declined to provide video footage or documents about the incident, but confirmed in an email that it occurred. In his statement, Bursten disputed the shower delays, and added that Miami recently eased lockdown restrictions.

The prisoners might one day try to take over the whole facility, former employees said. At least two recalled higher-ups saying repeatedly, “It’s not a matter of if — it’s when.”

‘Thrown to the wolves’

The stress correctional officers experience can affect their physical and mental health. A report from the U.S. Department of Justice says that officer stress increases the risk of “heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and a host of other physical ailments.” 

A University of California, Berkeley survey found that anxiety and depression are “a way of life” for officers; a third of officers had reported experiencing at least one post-traumatic stress disorder symptom; and one in nine officers reported thoughts of suicide. Another study found that the risk of suicide among officers was 39 percent higher than the general population. 

These statistics came up in the Miami officers’ training. Even so, former staff said warden Hyatte and other prison leaders ignored officers’ welfare. In fact, some remembered being called “replaceable.”

“They preach to you in training that you are supported. We’re a family. Blah, blah, blah,” Danielle said. “Once you graduated, you’re kind of thrown to the wolves.” She and others said many officers drank or took anxiety medications to cope with the job.

Darrell, a former officer who also asked to be identified by his middle name, said each day working at Miami felt like a gamble. 

“Every time I left home, I realized that it could have been the last time that I left home. And I’m not the only officer who says that,” he said. “It’s a miracle that an officer hasn’t been killed yet.” 

Darrell didn’t want to quit. He said he had struggled with mental health issues before starting at the prison in June. But the pandemic meant fewer therapy sessions, and the new job meant new stress. 

During one shift, Darrell said he was the only officer on his unit when a man threatened to cut his own neck with a razor.

“You could see his skin pushed in,” he said. Darrell couldn’t do anything but talk to the man since officers aren’t allowed to physically intervene by themselves in such situations. He called over the radio for help, but says no one ever came. Another inmate eventually helped him talk the man down.

Darrell broke down in September. He thought of harming himself, and told his captain, Ernest Pickens, he needed to miss a shift. 

“He laughed at me when I told him I had thoughts of doing self-harm. He said ‘You just don’t want to come to work,’” Darrell said. “The conversation I had with him was probably one of the most disrespectful conversations I’ve ever had in my life.” 

Darrell checked into a hospital, and a therapist recommended intensive treatment. When he asked to take unpaid leave, Pickens said no. 

“I’ve never had an employer tell me ‘It’s your health or your job.’ What the hell is that?” Darrell said. “You would think you’d protect your officers.” 

Darrell resigned on September 19. 

Low staffing levels and high turnover can spiral out of control, said Martin Horn, former corrections head in Pennsylvania and New York City. 

“People have to work more overtime. They’re stressed, and the lack of safety leads to higher turnover,” he said. “So it’s a self-perpetuating problem.”

Staffing issues can also affect how inmates are treated, he said.

“When officers feel unsafe, they either back away and don’t do their jobs, or unfortunately sometimes, they resort to increased uses of force to get the job done.”

Fear and brutality

Many new officers quit soon after training, former staffer said, and some who stayed seemed to enjoy treating inmates harshly. The pandemic, officers said, became a convenient justification for lockdowns.

“The majority of the time I was there, they were on lockdown. COVID became an excuse to not treat these people like human beings,” said Allen, who also asked to be identified with his middle name. “Some people thought it was funny just to lock them in.” 

The department’s policy requires even inmates in solitary confinement to be let out for five hours of recreation per week. 

Allen said he saw officers throw inmates to the ground, “gun them down with pepper balls,” and hold their knees on inmates’ necks. He said he was more afraid of his fellow officers than he was of inmates. 

“These dudes in there take police brutality and run with it,” said Allen. “They get a little bit of control, and most of them are like dictators.”

Allen started in January and said he began to drink heavily to fall asleep.

“I drank every night because I had to cope with the shit I was seeing inside those walls,” he said. He increased his therapy sessions, too. 

A top-down problem

Allen described an incident in June in which he skipped work and threatened to kill himself. Looking at pictures of his son changed his mind. 

When Allen later spoke with warden Hyatte about what happened, he recalled Hyatte telling him, "A man doesn't act like a girl when he is under fire." 

He said he stopped going to work in late June. 

“That was the biggest weight taken off my shoulders,” he said, even though he had been hoping to continue his career in law enforcement. “This job made me not want to be a part of it.”

Despite losing a job during the pandemic, other former staff members felt similar relief when they left. Still, the effects of working at the Miami prison lingered. 

“I have nightmares from that place,” said Allen, whose therapist told him he had symptoms of PTSD. “I wake up shaking because I have dreams of being locked in a cell.”

About a week after she left, Danielle said she was driving home from the store when a can of biscuits popped in her car. The sudden noise took her right back to the prison. 

“Everything was still pretty raw,” she said. “I like horror movies. This was a real life horror movie.”

Asked how the department could solve the problems at the prison, the former staff members responded that many of the issues started with warden Hyatte and trickled down through the organization. The fix, they said, would be a fresh start. 

“They need to go in and clean some house, and it starts with the warden,” said Danielle.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health. Jake Harper can be reached at jharper@wfyi.org. He's on Twitter @jkhrpr.

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