Records: Fla. CO had string of violent incidents before fatal beating of inmate

Michael Riley Jr., 27, was involved in 22 use-of-force reports during the 10-month period before the fatal encounter


By Christina Saint Louis and Ben Conarck
The Miami Herald

CLERMONT, Fla. — A Florida corrections officer charged with the vicious fatal beating of an inmate has a long history of violent encounters with prisoners but managed to stay on the job for more than a year and a half, records obtained by the Miami Herald reveal.

Michael Riley Jr., 27, who is charged with second-degree murder in the June 18 attack on Christopher Howell, 51, at Lake Correctional Institution, was involved in 22 use-of-force reports during the 10-month period before the fatal encounter. Two of those incidents leading up to Howell's death were determined by the Florida Department of Corrections Office of Inspector General to be out of compliance with use-of-force procedures.

The indictment of Riley is sealed, meaning few details have been made public about what precipitated the beating.
The indictment of Riley is sealed, meaning few details have been made public about what precipitated the beating. (Photo/Polk County Sheriff's Office via AP)

The indictment of Riley is sealed, meaning few details have been made public about what precipitated the beating.

About 30 miles west of Orlando, Lake Correctional has become one of the more notorious facilities in the state's troubled prison system. Less than a year before Howell was killed, footage of the savage beating of an inmate was leaked to YouTube by prisoners desperate to expose what they described as rampant violence they regularly endured.

The FDC called Howell's death an "isolated incident," even as the department's records show a steady increase in use-of-force reports across all its prisons — at the same time the number of inmates in the Florida system is decreasing.

"That strikes me as alarming," said Ron McAndrew, a former warden at Florida State Prison and current prison consultant, when presented with Riley's records. "In fact, after eight uses of force within a year's time, the officer is supposed to go under special review. In other words, he's supposed to be under strict supervision at that point to see what's going on."

What Florida's use-of-force policy states is that the OIG "shall notify the warden of any staff member involved in eight or more organized use of force incidents in an 18-month period." It doesn't require any further action, but multiple criminal justice experts contacted by the Miami Herald said that would be expected.

The Department of Corrections does not make wardens available to talk to journalists.

"They have to go in for review," said former prison inspector Aubrey Land, who left the system after he and colleagues exposed a cover-up of a fatal gassing at Franklin Correctional Institution, leading to a clash with the then-top inspector general. "With that many uses of force he should have been moved around within the institution or maybe even transferred to another institution, put in a lower contact level or something of that nature."

The Florida Department of Corrections did not respond directly to questions from the Herald about whether any disciplinary actions were undertaken in response to Riley's unusually long string of use-of-force incidents. The department said that all uses of force are reviewed by the OIG and that some officers are involved in more than others because of their assignment.

"Some inmate populations have higher incidences of uses of force based on their custody level and propensity for violence," the department added.

The department said it has a "zero tolerance" policy toward staff violently abusing inmates, despite not discharging Riley until he was arrested. He had been placed on administrative leave until the criminal charge was filed.

During his 17-month employment, Riley was often responsible for Lake CI's most vulnerable inmates: those in the mental health unit, which according to FDC, has a mission "to provide a safe, secure, humane environment for its offenders."

And all but four of Riley's uses of force were against inmates housed there.

In addition to being inmates, they're patients, McAndrew said. "At Lake Correctional, which is designed for this very thing, you're going to have a therapist or psychologist, someone who's available to go to a scene like that and try and talk the inmate down because they'll be familiar with his mental health history." (According to a 2019 audit, Lake CI has at least 90 medical and mental health employees on contract.)

Howell was not housed in the mental health unit. However, the affidavit from his arrest described him as "disabled" and having a "juvenile disposition." When he was beaten, Howell lived in Lake CI's secured housing unit, which houses inmates in administrative and disciplinary confinement.

The clinical language in Riley's use-of-force history may not fully convey the extent of the force that was exerted.

In one report, Riley said that when he was escorting an inmate back to his cell, the inmate "displayed signs of agitation," and "violently pulled away" at which point Riley tried to remove the inmate's restraints.

"I immediately reasserted control," Riley wrote.

Though the warden signed off on the report, when the OIG reviewed the incident it found that Riley's actions did not comply with rules and procedures. "Officer Riley was observed on the institution's fixed-wing video, aggressively pulling on the restraint cable once the inmate was secured in a cell," the OIG review said.

The inmate told the Herald that Riley "snatched" at his handcuffs and pulled him against his cell door. "I reported it and filed multiple grievances," but was never interviewed by OIG, he said. The Herald is not identifying inmates out of concern for reprisals.

And there were other times where both the warden and OIG signed off, despite inmates' concerns.

After one incident, an inmate said that he was abused by Riley and two other officers. Later that day, another inmate called the OIG hotline on his behalf, alleging that officers slammed the inmate to the ground, kneed him in the face, and grabbed the inmate by the testicles — all before he could comply with orders to submit to hand restraints that the officers reported he resisted.

That inmate said he was calling the hotline because the victim of the beating was physically unable to do so.

The inmate who said he was abused by the officers later told the Herald that Riley aggravated inmates that day by making derogatory remarks such as "f--- you" and "you have no rights." Riley also threatened inmates, "telling them to come see him when they get out," the inmate said.

Prior to becoming a corrections officer at Lake CI, Riley served an infantryman in the Tennessee Army National Guard from November 2015 to March of 2019 and attained the rank of private first class. His record there, including whether it provided any red flags, and the circumstances of his leaving were not immediately available.

On March 22, 2019, Riley was hired by FDC.

Martin White, a former police officer and lawyer who goes by the moniker " Florida cop attorney" represents the main correctional officer in the beating posted on Youtube and now represents Riley.

Riley was arrested and charged with second-degree murder last month and posted bail a day later. According to court records, he has pleaded not guilty. Riley declined to comment through his attorney.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando, saw the video of last year's beating and visited the institution shortly after. In July, she protested outside of Lake CI after Howell's death.

Use-of-force records need to be taken seriously, Eskamani said.

"You've got to put yourself in the shoes of loved ones," she said. "Loved ones live in fear that their dad, their husbands, their brother, their best friend is not going to come out of prison, not because of their sentence, but because they're going to die at the hands of a correctional officer."

Inmates suffering from mental illness face unique difficulties in the Florida prison system, culminating in the death of Darren Rainey in 2012. After defecating on himself and soiling the walls of his cell, the 50-year-old, afflicted with schizophrenia, was escorted into a specially rigged shower — with the temperature controlled from a separate closet — and locked in the small compartment under a stream of hot water for nearly two hours. He begged for mercy, ignored by corrections officers, until he collapsed and died, the skin peeling off his body.

Like Howell, Rainey was a petty criminal. The former was serving time for stealing an $8 folding knife from a West Palm Beach Home Depot, then four $15 phone chargers from a nearby Target. When caught, he gave back two of the chargers. Asked for the others, he flashed the knife. Rainey was in Dade Correctional Institution on cocaine charges and he was housed in the prison's transitional care unit for inmates with mental illness.

Rainey's death was treated as a routine shower mishap until the Miami Herald, tipped off by one of Rainey's fellow inmates, revealed details about the incident.

No one was ever charged in his death, but the reporting spawned a lawsuit by Disability Rights Florida. The warden and the secretary of corrections both left their jobs under fire and the department announced a series of reforms, pledging to treat inmates suffering from mental illness with greater dignity.

As part of an agreement resolving the lawsuit, the department pledged to implement Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for all security staff members, designate an ombudsman to oversee mental health programs, and install additional audio/video cameras and upgrade existing ones.

Said then-FDC spokesman McKinley Lewis: "Through enhanced training opportunities for staff and the continued development of comprehensive solutions to issues posed by a growing population of mentally ill inmates, the department will continue to expand and enhance our mental health capabilities."

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(c)2020 Miami Herald

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