Florida Prison Neglect Contributes to Synthetic Cannabinoid Deaths

October 7, 2019

The violent and inhumane conditions pervading Florida state prisons are graphically detailed in a covertly-recorded documentary by an incarcerated man, who used cameras concealed in his eyeglasses and his Bible (footage above). Published on October 4 by the Miami Herald, the video captures, among other things, the harmful consequences of using synthetic cannabinoids, often known as “K2” or “Spice,” in a space of carceral abandonment.

Since 2015, prisoner Scott Whitney filmed, seemingly unbeknownst to correctional staff, the neglect  faced by incarcerated folks at Martin Correctional Institution (MCI). Not all the footage was successfully smuggled to Herald journalists, but the video that did make it out was from 2017, a year of record inmate deaths, particularly involving K2.

In fiscal year 2017/2018, Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) identified on its website 339 “accidental” prisoner deaths, and “most” of the ones from calendar year 2017 were drug overdoses, the Herald reported in August 2018.

Some of these deaths seem to be a product of correctional officers ignoring their duties. “They just let you twak out all day long,” Whitney said in one video, adding in another that institutions seemingly “don’t care about [drugs] while we’re in prison,” even though law enforcement continues to wage the “War on Drugs on the street.”

To be clear, drugs policing is very much alive and well within prisons and jails, as exemplified by the Florida DOC’s own anti-contraband enforcement efforts, which seized over 36,000 grams of K2 in fiscal year 2017/2018. But Smith’s observation suggests that correctional officers at MCI show, through their actions, utter disregard for the harms of risky drug use to prisoners.

This seemed to be the case for Sylvester Smith, a person incarcerated at MCI who died on July 28, 2017. Per a DOC Inspector General report, Smith had allegedly been “smoking K2 under the stairs at the rear of the wing” of the housing area. His exact symptoms were redacted from the report, though it stated that fellow prisoners “dragged Inmate Smith back to his cell,” suggesting that he was unresponsive.

Correctional officers were unaware of this until two hours later when inmates notified them. The staff members had failed to “conduct frequent security checks/cell front inspections, at least once an hour.” Instead, they had not checked the cells for four hours.

Smith caught the neglect on camera, with one clip showing an officer hardly looking into his cell during count. “They don’t give a damn,” Whitney told the hidden camera, referring to the officer. “They don’t look, they don’t care if we’re living, they don’t check to see if we’re safe.”

As he said in a video snippet—words that later titled the documentary—this is what it’s like “behind tha barb wire.”

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