Death Behind the Walls

I am writing this as part of research on behalf of a grassroots organization I am a core member of: Restorative Justice Coalition. This research originally came to light in 2018, when our former outreach coordinator, the now dearly departed Syd Eastman, proposed an idea that we should investigate deaths in the Florida prisons. While we initially combed through the idea, we didn’t get very far, as Syd would die a month later. Being that our work is grassroots and unpaid, it’s difficult to pick up tasks, so we didn’t revisit until 2021. By chance, we stumbled upon this case.

Please note, as an abolitionist, I will not disclose the charges the incarcerated individual had. I will tell you it’s not a “respectable low-level drug offense”. We either are or we are not abolitionists. Even if you’re not an abolitionist, we must support human rights for incarcerated persons worldwide.

It was July 10, 2017. Charlotte Correctional Institute is just another prison in sunny Florida with a number of nameless (at least to us on the outside) people serving time for a variety of reasons. We often do not think about what happens inside of prisons and that is by design — if we can’t see it, we can’t address the injustices.

Out of sight, out of mind.

What’s funny, though, due to Florida’s robust public records law, most things are in sight, but since they are out of mind, we have to think to look for it. That’s exactly what we did in the end of 2021 when we developed a plan to look at deaths in Florida prisons. I wanted to specifically explore deaths coded as “accidental”. It intrigued me. Sure, accidents could happen in a prison, but to what level. Did someone slip on something and bust their head? That would be an accident.

I happened upon the death reports of the fiscal year 2017–2018. It was by chance that I would click on the death report for an incarcerated person named Antonio Kirkland. Much of the information was redacted, as to be expected, and the amount of available information was limited.

With approval of the Restorative Justice Coalition members, we used donated funds to pay for a full public record report. It would still have redactions, but it would be more than the FDLE/Inspector General report we’d seen on the DOC website.

The report really shined a light on this “accidental” death in the prison that day. It certainly didn’t involved an ill-placed banana peel that someone slipped on.

Florida DOC Office of Inspector General Report
Florida DOC Office of Inspector General Report

Let’s walk through this little bit of information we have. At or around 3:18pm, Kirkland and another incarcerated individual, Santos McGill, had what is described as a mutual altercation. Reportedly, they did not follow correctional officer command to stop the assault, which results in the staff using what is identified only as a “chemical agent”. Further reports show initial refusal to comply with being placed in a hand restraint, but eventually McGill complies. Whatever chemical agent was used, McGill had to go to decontamination. That signifies that whatever was used was strong enough to be…contaminate.

Old Mr. Webster could never define our love for humanity, but he could define contaminate.

Kirkland was not taken to decontamination, though. It’s unclear what exactly happened to Kirkland since it’s redacted, but we also know that Florida public records primarily redacts matters of personal health. For this reason, we strongly believe that Kirkland was showing signs of a medical emergency. Only 71 minutes after the initial altercation, at 4:29pm, Antonio Kirkland was been pronounced dead.

Florida DOC Office of Inspector General Report

We see in the initial report that Officer Gable contacted the Incident Command System for the A-team to respond at 3:25, only about 10 minutes after the altercation began at 3:18pm.

So, what chemical agent was even used?

Florida DOC Office of Inspector General Report

As the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) version of the report would show, the chemical agent used was pepper spray, popularly hailed as a non-lethal or less-than-lethal chemical agent used by law enforcement both in prisons and on the streets.

Let’s see what the medical community has to say: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/238262#what-is-it

For one, it’s usage at the street-level is not without controversy:

“Police use of pepper spray remains controversial. During the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Amnesty International raised serious concerns that law enforcement had violated protestors’ human rights through unnecessary and sometimes excessive force, including the use of pepper spray.

These concerns center around the use of pepper spray, tear gas, and other tactics as “a first resort tactic against peaceful protestors rather than as a response to any sort of actual threat or violence.”

“In addition, a 2016 study by Harvard University researchers found that police in the U.S. are more likely to use pepper spray on Black people than white people. This is just one of the serious concerns about systemic racism and racial discrimination within law enforcement.”

Important Note: Both incarcerated individuals, McGill and Kirkland, were Black.

The Medical News Today also states: “Pepper spray is known as a “nonlethal weapon,” or a weapon that cannot kill people. While death is rare, reports have linked several deaths with the use of pepper spray.

In 2003, a Department of Justice report on an investigation into 63 deaths of people in custody found that pepper spray directly contributed to the deaths of two people. The police had used pepper spray in the arrest of all the individuals.

The report attributed the cause of these deaths to the pepper spray, citing preexisting asthma as a contributing factor. Causes of death for other study subjects were drug use, disease, positional asphyxia, or a combination of factors.

The same report concluded the following:

“Pepper spray inhalation alone does not pose a significant risk for respiratory compromise or asphyxiation, even when combined with positional restraint.”

From how we are interpreting this, pepper spray may be generally non-lethal, but underlying conditions may result in a much more lethal experience. Since Kirkland’s health information is redacted, we can’t be sure if he had underlying health conditions, such as asthma. However, the correctional team should be aware of the medical conditions of the people they lock away.

The next report we took a look at is known as the MINS report.

Florida DOC MINS Report

The MINS report interestingly enough indicates that no chemical agents were used, inconsistent with the inspector general and the FDLE report. Interesting. An error? Maybe. It’s also interesting that he incident type is “undetermined or other death”, when it had to be obvious, based on the redacted information in the inspector general report. Considering the nature of police and prison cover-ups, it’s hard to believe anything like this is an accident. Maybe it was those, because in the same report:

Florida MINS Report, nature of incident.

All the other reports, such as the control log report, has the details of the chemical agent, although none of them identify it as pepper spray.

Florida DOC Control Log Report

The case had very little media coverage that I could find, but it did have some, and even that is very telling.

“Antonio Kirkland, 44, was reported dead on July 10 at the 1,291-prisoner capacity prison in Punta Gorda. In 2005, Kirkland, a Pinellas County man, was sentenced to [redacting], according to the Florida Department of Corrections.

No details were released on how Kirkland died Thursday.

I really can’t provide more information,” FDLE spokeswoman Jessica Cary said. “We don’t normally investigate deaths of natural causes.”

Court records indicate Kirkland filed an appeal in the case in May.

This is the second death of an inmate this year that has prompted an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement at Charlotte Correctional Institution. On May 29, Cesar Ruano was found dead at the facility which holds prisoners of different security levels including minimum, medium, and closed. Ruano, 37, was also serving a life sentence at the time of his death.”

Why would FDLE’s spokesperson, Jessica Cary, indicate this to be a death by natural cause. A death caused by pepper spray is not natural causes. Even with redacted information, we can see that Kirkland’s death was hastened by the chemical agent. That’s not a natural cause, that is an intervention. Further, the death is coded as an accident, at least it is now, so why did they even try to pass it off as natural in the first place? I’m sorry, but that’s odd to me.

“There was another inmate death earlier this year, making Kirkland’s at least the third at CCI this year. 48-year-old Michael Diffenderfer passed away suddenly in April at CCI. He had been serving consecutive life sentences for [redacted] from Palm Beach. The cause of death in his case has been reported to be natural: pulmonary embolism as a result of deep vein thrombosis. That’s according to Diffenderfer’s ex-wife… FDLE did not publicly release any information regarding that death either. We don’t have any suggestion that his death was suspicious, but no official word from FDLE, either.”

On the DOC’s mortality website, Michael Diffenderfer is listed as a natural death. True to form to spokesperson Cary’s statement about natural deaths not being investigated, the website does not include a public record investigation into his death. There is no mention of chemical agents in Ruano’s death report either, also coded as an accident: http://www.dc.state.fl.us/pub/mortality/PDF/M27173.pdf

Ruano’s actual causes of death are redacted. Being that it is coded as accident, and not natural, it’s interesting — it means it couldn’t have been a natural death like a stroke or heart attack, unless it was caused by something to aggravate it — like a misplaced banana peel to slip on, or something more devious — since we can’t see what it was.

We can’t be sure how he did, but according to Facebook, it was in solitary confinement (a cruel, inhumane punishment) and allegedly, this family member has something to say about it:

https://www.facebook.com/Charlottecountyflcopwatch/posts/1569944793016427:0

If this family member account is true, which we have no reason to doubt it, then it sounds like the accidents at Charlotte Correctional in 2017 are manufactured accidents.

Regardless about how you feel about the convictions an incarcerated people, we must make sure government bodies are accountable for harm and negligence. No matter what someone’s done, they still deserve their humanity behind the prison walls.

We can’t turn away from this.

We are a small, grassroots organization that takes in $230 in donations a month (and we’re grateful and blessed, because the first 3 years of our work, we had no donors), so we don’t have the skills, resources, time, or capacity to dig deeper…but we hope someone reading this does.

Maybe it’s time to consider other de-escalation tactics that don’t involve pepper spray. Usually, a death caused by accident is known as “manslaughter”. If I don’t intend to kill but do an action that causes death, I’m mostly likely getting a manslaughter charge because I’m not a cop. It can be a bit difficult for me to believe they continued resisting after being sprayed even once, so much so that additional sprays had to happen — and we don’t know what amount constitutes a “spray” — but we have to wonder, could this have been handled better? And has CCI changed since then?

Please, keep watch.

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I’m not an expert or scholar on anything. I mainly write for me. If others see it, and love it, great :)

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Angel D’Angelo

I’m not an expert or scholar on anything. I mainly write for me. If others see it, and love it, great :)