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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Number of children zapped by stun guns while visiting Florida prisons grows to 43

By Marc Caputo, Times/Herald Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE — Children held hands so that 50,000 volts could pass through their fingers. Other children were exposed to tear gas.

A total of 43 children were directly and indirectly shocked by electric stun guns during simultaneous Take Your Sons and Daughters to Work Day events gone wrong at three state prisons last month. One was a warden's daughter.

The growing number — and the bizarre descriptions of kids exposed to tear gas and shocked while holding hands in circles — came in a new report Friday by the Florida Department of Corrections.

Three prison guards have been fired, two have resigned and 16 more — from corrections officers to a warden — will be disciplined for what happened on April 23, said DOC Secretary Walt McNeil.

None of the children required medical attention or were notably harmed, McNeil said. He said the victims, who ranged in age from 5 to 17, were all children of prison officials. In nearly every case, the guards who administered the "electronic immobilization devices" had permission from parents or grandparents.

McNeil couldn't understand any of it.

"I can't imagine what these officers were thinking to administer this device to children, nor can I imagine why any parent would allow them to do so," McNeil said. "This must not happen again."

McNeil called the episode "embarrassing" for the nation's fourth-largest prison system, which has been rocked by other scandals.

A McNeil predecessor, Jimmy Crosby, is in federal prison for taking bribes. Other guards were busted in a steroid ring, for rampant pilfering, for misusing inmate labor and for beer-soaked brawls stemming from a cut-throat culture of interprison softball games.

Investigators found that a semipro baseball player was given a no-show job to help one institution win on the diamond.

Jim McDonough, the prison chief who cleaned up the mess left by Crosby, repeatedly said his mission was to end the "culture of brutality" that permeated the prison system.

McNeil has repeatedly stressed that the stun-gunning happened at only three of the 55 institutions and that it wasn't a widespread practice. Still, he acknowledged that it was "logical" to assume that other children had been shocked on other take-your-kids-to-work days. One of the fired guards said the practice had occurred before, but so far, prison officials have found no evidence of that.

McNeil noted that the stun guns used differ from Tasers, which shoot electrified wires at their targets and deliver a far more powerful amperage. So far this year, none of the stun guns have been used on the 100,000 prison inmates — only on the children of DOC workers. McNeil said the use of the guns violated DOC policies.

Of the children exposed to the stun guns, 14 were directly shocked at Franklin, Martin and Indian River correctional institutions.

Twenty-nine others were indirectly exposed when they held hands with a person who was shocked. With the kids circled together, the electricity could flow from one child's hands to the next. The warden whose child was involved was out of town at the time and hadn't given permission.

After hearing of the incident at Franklin, McNeil said, he conducted an investigation that revealed the stun gunning at the other institutions. During the investigation, officials also learned that officials at Lake Correctional Institution demonstrated the use of tear gas, which endangered some of the kids.

In his 30 years in law enforcement, McNeil said, "I've never seen anything like this."

Times staff writers John Barry and Meg Laughlin contributed to this report.