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Calhoun Correctional Institution: A Gladiator School

Views: 1,129 Calhoun Correctional Institution is one of fifty major prisons operated by the Florida Department of Corrections, the state’s largest agency. It is in Blountstown, Calhoun …

by Stephen Shenfield



8 min read

Calhoun Correctional Institution is one of fifty major prisons operated by the Florida Department of Corrections, the state’s largest agency. It is in Blountstown, Calhoun County in the Florida panhandle. The warden is Mr. Heath Holland. 

Calhoun CI has capacity for 1,350 men. A man who was there from 2009 to 2014 says that the actual number of inmates is about 1,600. There are some cells, but most inmates are accommodated in blocks of 70 bunks. The place is very dirty. In summer the heat gets unbearable, but the inmates have to bear it because there is no air conditioning for them (except when they get to go to the law library or if they are admitted to the infirmary). 

A Digression: Who Was Calhoun?

In whose honor is this prison – and the county in which it is situated — named? Who was this Calhoun?

John Caldwell Calhoun (1782—1850) was a congressman from South Carolina and vice president of the United States from 1825 to 1832. He was an advocate of slavery. An advocate, not a defender. For unlike other politicians in the antebellum South, who defended slavery as a ‘necessary evil,’ Calhoun advocated it as a ‘positive good’ that benefited slaves as well as their owners. Old slaves in America, he argued, were treated more kindly than paupers in the poorhouses of Europe. There he perhaps had a point.

The name Calhoun is widely scattered across the map of the United States, in the North as well as the South. It has been attached to 14 cities, 12 counties, 79 streets, avenues, roads, lanes, and squares, 17 schools and colleges, 2 lakes, 2 parks – and several state prisons. Only 6 of these 130 or so objects have been renamed. 

Sabrina’s Petition

Let’s start this account of conditions at Calhoun CI with a petition that Sabrina Sykes of Apopka, Florida addressed to the state governor on change.org, entitled ‘Stop the Torture and Abuse of Inmates at Calhoun CI.’ She recounts what happened to her son Keenan soon after his arrival at the prison in January 2019:

One Tuesday evening … a female guard accused him of rolling his eyes at her. A captain then took him into the bathroom off camera and told him he was going to gas and beat him and throw him into solitary confinement because he thought he saw him roll his eyes at the female guard. Keenan assured the captain that he did not roll his eyes. Keenan asked me to report the threat to the Inspector General’s Office that same evening. I submitted the report via the IG website. The next day I received a call from Assistant Warden Kent. He thanked me for reporting the threat and assured me that an investigation would be made to ascertain exactly what happened… 

I spoke to Keenan briefly on Friday evening (February 1) and asked him if all was well. He assured me everything was fine, but the guards who had threatened him would be coming on duty within the hour. At approximately 6:30 pm I received a call from another inmate. He told me that the guards did their walk through and immediately zoned in on Keenan. They took him into the bathroom off camera, stripped him, gassed him, beat him, and took him to the box. I received a call from another inmate who described how Keenan was sitting on his bed when the guards approached him, grabbed him, and took him into the bathroom off camera, where they gassed and beat him. I received a third call from the parent of another inmate, who let me know how upset her son was because he had just witnessed the guards snatch Keenan from his bunk, take him into the bathroom, and gas and beat him… All three witnesses have now been put in confinement as retaliation.

So the prison administration had ample warning. They could so easily have prevented the Correctional Officers (guards) from carrying out their threat against Keenan. Why didn’t they? Perhaps they just didn’t give a damn. Or perhaps they thought – unofficially, of course — that he should be severely punished for ‘disrespecting a white woman’? After all, Florida was and remains part of ‘the South’ — even though it isn’t one of the states that first come to mind when we hear the phrase. Many young black men have been murdered there for similar – often quite imaginary — offenses. 

On February 9 Sabrina posted an update:

My son is still in 24-hour confinement. I have not heard from him even though he is permitted to write letters. He usually sends me two letters a week.   

Another update followed on February 23:

The last letter I received from Keenan described his first four days in confinement after the guards gassed and beat him. They stripped him of all his clothes and left him there on the concrete without a pad to sleep on. No shoes, socks, pants, or shirt; he only had on his boxers. He then described how they turned on the ventilation fans to draw in the cold air from outside to further torment him. He now has clothes… They said they threw his clothes away because of the gas they used on him, but they should have replaced them immediately. I have been told an investigation is underway into the whole incident and he will not be released until it is completed… I am praying he will be transferred out of Calhoun CI.

There are no further updates, but more insight into conditions at Calhoun CI is contained in comments. Signatories are invited to leave a comment explaining why they have signed the petition. Quite a few of the comments – 22 out of 93 — mention abuse suffered there by the signatory or by a friend or relative (son, husband, brother, father). Abuse always takes place ‘off camera.’

Wanda Goff: ‘My husband is in Calhoun CI. I haven’t heard from him in 9 days. I called and found out he was in the box, but I worry because I feel he would have written me by now if he was able. He has told me stories of ways the guards punish them. Making them strip down to their boxers and hug light poles in cold weather and other degrading, inhumane punishment. I’m scared every day that he’s in that facility.’

Fatal Abuse

In several cases the abuse appears to have resulted in death: 

Angela Jones: ‘My ex-husband was just found dead last night in his confinement cell at Calhoun and I don’t know what happened yet.’ 

Jessica Turner: ‘My dad took his own life in a county jail, probably from all the trauma he experienced over the years in prison.’

Diane Howard: ‘I have a son going through the system… Guards are killing and abusing our loved ones daily.’

Lisa Murphy: ‘My best friend passed away last week because the guards are abusing the inmates…  He was 33 years old, signed up for the Graphic Design Program there, due for release in 4 months, and now he’s gone. It’s the guards.’

Almost always the cause of death will be officially recorded as natural or accidental.

Note that even a prison sentence as ‘short’ as one year (sentences shorter than that are served in a local jail, not a prison) may turn out to be a death sentence when served at a place like Calhoun. A gentle young man sent there after being convicted of a minor non-violent offense will either perish, or come out a deeply traumatized suicidal wreck, or survive as a hardened and brutalized criminal. Do the judges who send youngsters to such hell holes really not know what they are doing? Or if they do, then how do they sleep at night? 

Our comrade Joe R. Hopkins was at Calhoun for several months; he is now at Okeechobee Correctional Institution, which is a little less dangerous. He once remarked that Calhoun is a ‘gladiator school’ – a place where guards entertain themselves by forcing inmates to fight one another. A comment by a man who signed Sabrina’s petition confirms this:

Bernard Kloss: ‘I was an inmate there in 2012. The Laundry Sargent was very abusive, as were many other Correctional Officers. I too was gassed, threatened, and made to fight. If I refused, I was told that they would put me in the hospital with a new charge.’ 

COs sometimes unleash violence against visitors as well. In a letter to me one Calhoun inmate recounted these incidents:

When my mother came to see me, … the female guards patted her down hard and slammed her head up against the wall. I never got to see her, she died that same night. My wife, who was in the visitation room, heard what happened. She asked why my mother’s head had been slammed and demanded to see the duty warden. Instead of the duty warden, a member of the rapid response team came to her table and told her to leave. She refused. She was picked up – she was only slightly over four feet tall – and slammed onto the floor, handcuffed from behind, picked up again, slammed onto the floor again, then dragged outside to the parking lot and transported to a local county jail, where she was warned not to file any complaints and released.  

[On another occasion] when my wife came to visit me, she brought games and puzzles and donated them for the use of visitors and their kids, but they were put in the guards’ trunks and taken away. When she asked why, she was attacked by several female guards. They beat her so badly that she was still bleeding on her way home. 

Some comments complain about corrupt guards who smuggle drugs, cell phones, and other contraband into the prison. One mentions guards who are themselves drug addicts:

Wendy Sanchez: ‘My husband is in there… One officer threatened to shoot him… These officers stay high on molly.’

‘Molly’ is a slang term for 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA), also known as Ecstasy. It is a synthetic drug that alters mood and perception, enhancing energy and pleasure.  

Guards and Gangs

Decent inmates face abuse not only from guards but also from fellow prisoners who are gang members, although here too the guards and especially the prison administration are at fault for giving the gangs free rein.

Here are some accounts of gang violence and its impact on decent prisoners:

Janna Romine: ‘A couple of inmates have died this year and their deaths are under investigation. My grandson is currently in isolation following a gang-related incident in which he tried to protect a smaller guy. After finding out the Bloods now have a hit on him, he acquired a knife for defense and got put back in isolation with a DR [Disciplinary Report]. He has been incarcerated for 15 years with no DR and was looking forward to a re-hearing of his case. I have called the warden three times and reported this to the Inspector General. No answers so far. They say that they check on him around the clock, but he says that’s not true.’

Prisoners under the threat of gang violence face a Catch 22. They know that the guards cannot be relied on to protect them. Yet if they arm themselves for self-defense they are disciplined and penalized. No attempt is made to distinguish aggressors from victims.

Angelwings Atilla: ‘My son is there. He has been beaten and refused medical help. The guards let the gangs rule. They give them permission to beat and stab other inmates. The guards are not protecting the inmates; they are putting their lives in danger every day. There are several inmates asking for help to remove them from this hell hole run by dirty low-life gangsters. The warden, his assistant, the guards, the medical staff — all evil… They let a young man die this month, putting him in the hole with meth in his stomach. Others asked for help for him. To no avail. He died. Now his daughter has no father, because Calhoun Is so corrupt. Nothing matters to them except doing things their way, bringing in phones and drugs to make money. Power-hungry wolves with no respect for anything but themselves. My son is a human being, not a whipping post. He has been sexually assaulted, beaten until he was black and purple all over. Now they are threatening to stab him. They are taking money from our boys. They call [relatives] to say that if they do not get money the inmate will get jumped. Anywhere from $100 to $500 from the mother, father, grandmother, etc. If it isn’t paid they charge interest! It’s like a really bad movie from another country.’

Darlene Roderick: ‘I’m signing on behalf of an inmate incarcerated there. He was jumped and kept putting in a request to see medical. His mom called numerous times before they finally brought him to the infirmary. The doctor said he needed surgery immediately on his jaw, which was broken in four places. [Instead] he was put in confinement for ‘acting like a baby.’ They confiscated his tablet and the woman who answered the phone told his mom it was because he was telling her too much. A bunch of us mommas called the prison to get him medical care, because he was in severe pain and couldn’t eat or sleep. The attack happened around October 21 and they finally transferred him to a hospital on October 31. When he arrived his temperature was 105.7 and he was in a coma. The admitting nurse told his mom he was in a life or death situation.’

These comments bring up a number of issues that require treatment at much greater length – rape,[1] extortion, medical neglect. 

Extortion takes various forms. It often starts with the theft of an item of great value to the prospective victim, such as his tablet or a good pair of boots. The victim is then invited to ‘pay ransom’ – that is, buy it back. As very few prisoners have the opportunity to earn money, the real victims are the relatives who pay up in order to protect their loved one.

Medical Neglect

Medical care at Calhoun CI is provided, to the extent that it is provided at all, by a private company named Centurion Managed Care. From a database of vacancies on its website we find that ten positions at Calhoun are currently unfilled, including Site Medical Director and Director of Nursing. This means that the medical staff consists solely of nurses and medical assistants, with no physician to give them guidance. The prison has some sort of arrangement with a Nurse Practitioner who works at a local clinic for pregnant and breastfeeding women; she visits the prison now and then but maintains no office there.

Even when a physician is present, it must always be kept in mind that he/she is not an independent professional but merely an employee of Centurion. As such, there are many tests and treatments that he/she can order or administer only with permission from officials higher up in the company. Permission is often refused with a view to holding down costs. This often results in conditions being left untreated until they become very serious and difficult to treat. For instance:

Sheila B. Self: ‘Because Tyson was denied medical treatment for a cyst on his vocal cord, it metastasized to Stage 4 throat cancer, resulting in his voice box being removed. That could have been prevented by using a laser beam to remove the cyst.’

Prison staff are disinclined to believe inmates’ descriptions of their own symptoms. They start out from the assumption that prisoners are malingerers and hypochondriacs, and only strong evidence to the contrary will budge them from this view in an individual case. Even for medical staff the first concern is exposing inmates who are only pretending to be sick; treating those who really are sick comes a distant second. This attitude also plays a major part in the chronic neglect of prisoners’ medical needs.

Concluding Thoughts

I have focused on one particular prison about which I happen to have been able to gather some information. Although Calhoun CI, Florida is probably one of the worst prisons, there are many others like it. 

For a rough idea of the full scale of the issue, bear in mind that the 1,600 men at Calhoun make up less than one thousandth part of all prisoners in the country. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, almost 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, and state psychiatric hospitals. 

There is now a procedure by which a relative or friend on the outside can report an incident of abuse and have it investigated. This may create the impression that prison authorities are seriously committed to crack down on abuse. However, it is difficult if not impossible to get out the information for a report. Prisoners have no right to unmonitored communication with outsiders[1] and are liable to be punished for revealing abuse. Investigations are internal and nothing is known about how they are conducted. Like internal police investigations, they are unlikely to lead to action. An institution cannot be expected to police itself. In practice the main function of the complaints procedure is to placate victims’ relatives.


[1] On rape, I recommend the Human Rights Watch report No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons.

[2] The sole exception is communication with lawyers. However, very few prisoners are represented by a lawyer: quite apart from the expense, very few lawyers are willing to represent prisoners. Most of the many prisoners who take legal action represent themselves. 

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I grew up in Muswell Hill, north London, and joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain at age 16. After studying mathematics and statistics, I worked as a government statistician in the 1970s before entering Soviet Studies at the University of Birmingham. I was active in the nuclear disarmament movement. In 1989 I moved with my family to Providence, Rhode Island, USA to take up a position on the faculty of Brown University, where I taught International Relations. After leaving Brown in 2000, I worked mainly as a translator from Russian. I rejoined the World Socialist Movement about 2005 and am currently general secretary of the World Socialist Party of the United States. I have written two books: The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) and more articles, papers, and book chapters that I care to recall.

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