23 Jul 2015

When Teen Detainees Died in Custody in Jeb Bush’s Florida -- One boy with appendicitis was told nothing was ‘wrong with his ass.’ Another was viciously beaten by guards. And none of those responsible got jail time.

In 2003, 17-year-old Omar Paisley spent three days in a Florida jail cell moaning in agony. Prison staff said he was faking his illness and told him to suck it up. Then he died.
This year and last, the deaths of numerous African Americans at the hands or in the custody of prison officials and police—including Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, and, most recently, Sandra Bland —have drawn renewed (and belated) national media attention to the state of the criminal justice system. And that, in turn, has made candidates’ stances and records on criminal justice policy a factor in the 2016 presidential race.
It’s a particularly sensitive topic for Jeb Bush, who as governor faced two situations that mirror the deaths of Gray and Bland, both of whom died while in police custody. When Bush was governor of Florida, two teenagers died preventable deaths while in juvenile detention centers. And Bush’s approach to their cases casts some light on how he might look at criminal justice issues if he becomes president.
Paisley’s death could have been averted, and it took a long time. The African-American teenager was put in the 226-bed Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center “for cutting another youth with a soda can,” the AP reported, and he filled out a form on June 7—one day after going to the jail—saying he was ill.
“My stomach hurts really bad,” he wrote. “I don't know what to do. I cand [sic] sleep.”
Some of the staff at the facility, according to a Feb. 27, 2004, USA Today story, didn’t take him seriously.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with his ass,” said one nurse.
And supervisor Jack Harrington told Paisley to “suck it up and walk around.”
But you can’t suck up appendicitis. The paper reported that a guard later found the teen lying in his cell covered in feces and urine, sweating profusely and clutching his stomach. Nurse Dianne Demeritte refused to enter the cell, saying she didn’t “want to take his [mess] home to my kid.” (The Palm Beach Post notedthat two of his cellmates had to change his sheets and clean up his vomit.)
Demeritte made the sick teen, who could barely walk, walk out of his filthy cell and sit on a chair in the hallway. She concluded that there was “nothing wrong with his ass.” Then, according to USA Today, she filled out paperwork to have him moved to a hospital, left him sitting on the chair, and went on a break. Guards found him passed out and didn’t perform CPR because their first aid kid didn’t contain the necessary equipment.
That’s how Omar Paisley died.
Bush’s communications director, Jill Bratina, sent that USA Today story to the governor and others a few hours after it was published, according to emails made searchable by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Paisley’s death became national news, and, in one email, Bush promised a constituent it was just an isolated incident.
Bill King of Pensacola emailed the governor to voice his outrage about Paisley’s roommates being forced to clean his vomit from their cell.
“The lives of those kids are as much if not more important than any employee working there as they are not there by choice as the employees are, they are there by design and they have no say over their own lives,” King wrote.
“All of these children are important and should not be placed into any dangerous or unhealthy situations,” he added.
Bush concurred, and emailed King back to say so.
“The interim Secretary [of Juvenile Justice] is cleaning up the mess,” the governor replied. “Thankfully, this is not a problem that is systemic statewide. I appreciate your writing.”
And his assistant general counsel, Wendy Berger, emailed another concerned constituent, Lynda Morse, to promise the governor would do everything he could to ensure that no more incarcerated teens would have to suffer Paisley’s fate.
“Like many throughout this State, Governor Bush was saddened and outraged over the death of this child,” Berger wrote. “Please know that those responsible will be held accountable. Governor Bush has full confidence in Interim Secretary [C. George] Denman’s ability to implement needed reforms. His hope is that the changes made in the Department will prevent anything like this from ever happening again.”
Those hopes were misplaced. Some leaders at the Department of Juvenile Justice stepped down in the wake of Paisley’s death, and the department implemented a new policy allowing any staffer or volunteer to call 911 without first having to get permission.
But there was scant accountability for the adults responsible for Paisley’s death. The two nurses were indicted on murder charges, according to The Palm Beach Post, but neither got jail time. Prison Legal News reported that the prosecutors dropped charges against one of them and that the other nurse—the one who forced Paisley to leave his cell and then insisted that nothing was wrong with him—just gave up her nurse’s license and spent one year on probation. Several prison employees were fired, and Paisley’s mother got a $1.45 million settlement from the Department of Juvenile Justice. In the meantime, nonviolent drug offenders in Florida faced stiff prison sentences. 
Less than three years after Paisley’s death, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson—also African-American—died in custody at the Bay County Boot Camp detention center in Panama City, Florida. Anderson landed there because he and a few of his cousins took his grandmother’s car joy-riding and then crashed it, according the book The Boys of the Dark: A Story of Betrayal and Redemption in the Deep South, by Robin Gaby Fisher, Michael O’McCarthy, and Robert W. Straley.
A video showed seven guards at the boot-camp detention center kicking, kneeing, and hitting the 14-year-old because he wouldn’t run around a track, according to WCTV.
“A medical examiner originally said the teenager died of Sickle Cell trait, but after Anderson’s body was exhumed, a second autopsy revealed he did not die of natural causes,” reported WCTV.
Bush appointed the special prosecutor who ordered the second autopsy that found Anderson didn’t die of natural causes. That autopsy “determined that by blocking Martin’s mouth and forcing him to inhale ammonia fumes—an effort, the guards said, to revive him—they had caused his vocal cords to spasm and block his airway,” The New York Times reported.
Anderson’s family got a $5 million settlement from the state. An all-white jury acquitted the guards who beat and kneed him on video, Time reported.
Later, Bush signed legislation eliminating juvenile detention boot camps in the state. The New York Times noted that previously, Bush was “a strong supporter” of the boot camps. And during his failed 1994 gubernatorial campaign, he told theOrlando Sentinel that he wanted to “reform our juvenile-justice system by emphasizing punishment over therapy for juvenile offenders.”
The teens’ deaths may have changed his view.
“Throughout Gov. Bush’s tenure, he worked to reform the juvenile justice system in Florida to improve services, help young offenders turn their lives around and give them the tools needed to be successful in the future,” Bush aide Kristy Campbell said via email.
Campbell noted that the juvenile crime rate dropped by 18 percent during Bush’s tenure in office and that the rate of juveniles entering the adult system went down by more than 40 percent.
“In the tragic cases of Omar Paisley and Martin Lee Anderson, Governor Bush took immediate action to hold those individuals involved in these deaths accountable and to provide additional funding to increase staff and services at juvenile justice facilities,” she added.
The 911 reforms Bush’s Department of Juvenile Justice implemented after Paisley’s death don’t seem to have outlasted his time in office with complete success. On July 10, 2011, four and a half years after Bush’s departure, another teen, 18-year-old Eric Perez, died in a manner that CBS Miami called “hauntingly similar” to Paisley’s. It also recalled Anderson’s death: Guards at the West Palm Beach juvenile detention center where Perez was held roughhoused with him, picking him up and dropping him, before he retreated, hallucinated, passed out, and died.

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