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Black Prisoners Targeted For Speaking Out About Worsening Conditions Amidst COVID-19 in Florida

By Karen Smith, Florida Prisoner Solidarity

The COVID-19 death toll nears 200 inside Florida prisons, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) wastes time, effort and resources conducting a witch hunt for whistleblowers who threaten the lack of transparency maintained by staff. So far, the state has disappeared several elder black men who have a history of speaking out about conditions inside Florida prisons. These men were taken from their housing units without incident, placed under investigation and sentenced to long-term solitary confinement without evidence or explanation aside from vague accusations of promoting unrest through correspondence with outside advocacy groups. Callers are being told the information surrounding their placement in solitary is confidential and cannot be shared. Their families and communities are scared of what’s happening to them especially since they are older and more vulnerable to coronavirus and the horrific conditions of the restrictive housing units they’ve been placed in.

Keith Soanes, one example of someone facing retaliation, is serving a life sentence in the Florida prison system. He is currently being held at Florida State Prison in a close management unit, which is Florida’s euphemism for solitary confinement. 

Although Keith’s situation is being publicized, there are many more people inside facing similar retaliation who do not want their names out there. 

Keith did not receive any disciplinary infractions before being sentenced to close management, he was simply taken and accused of “encouraging disturbances and unrest type activities” before being found guilty. No evidence was presented against him, nor were any disturbances noted or referenced. He is now confined to a 9×7 cell by himself for 24 hours a day, allowed only one phone call a month and no visits. He is not allowed to communicate with other prisoners under the threat of being assaulted with chemical agents. Keith will spend a minimum of one and a half years under these conditions in what is notably Florida’s worst prison. 

Image of FDOC’s justification for sending Keith to close management. Recommendation reads: “Through credible intelligence inmate Soanes, Keith DC#191981 has been verifiably linked to actions involving organizing and encouraging disturbance and unrest type activities in the community and inmate population. This information was gained through observed behavior and reliable investigative sources.”

Keith has written for several publications around the country including the national newspaper the San Francisco Bay View. Prison officials cite connections to the Black Panther Party as reason for classifying Keith as a gang member and security threat although the BPP is a political party to which Keith has no documented ties other than an ideological affinity.

Close management status is usually reserved for prisoners who the administration deem unable to exist within the general population because of the danger they present to the “safety and security of the institution.” Criteria for being recommended for this level of confinement normally involves repeated patterns of violent behavior and/or manipulation of staff. In this case, the danger is an exchange of information with outside groups. Both men are being targeted simply because they are vocal about the conditions inside Florida prisons which have worsened amidst coronavirus and their political alignment with groups who are critical of the Florida penal system.

Florida prisons are more overcrowded than ever under the onslaught of coronavirus infections as people are displaced from housing areas that have been repurposed into quarantine zones. Prisoners are being housed three to a cell, built for two at a time, when social distancing should be a main priority. Prisoners have endured months-long lockdowns in small cells without adequate food, hygiene supplies, clean water, or disinfectants. The logistical impossibility of managing a pandemic in prison is exacerbated by staff who refuse to wear masks and the continual shipping of people between prisons, which never stopped despite claims by administrators that all movement had ceased.

Keith has reported on these worsening conditions and even appealed directly to Mark Inch, the Secretary of the FDOC, and Governor DeSantis, asking for help. In April, one such letter written by Keith was hand delivered to Governor DeSantis after mail and email attempts to bring attention to these matters were ignored. At that point only two people had died amidst coronavirus and the poor practices and total lack of meaningful healthcare inside Florida prisons. Officials hid those deaths for a whole week before the public was informed by a prisoner who had the courage to speak out. Since then, at the time of posting this, there have been almost 200 coronavirus-related deaths inside and the same officials have taken no steps to improve conditions or protect lives. 

Instead, they have taken advantage of the chaos and confusion caused by the pandemic to introduce several new administrative rules that broaden their ability to cause harm, isolate people and suppress communication.

While the citizens of Florida were home observing quarantine practices and the death toll inside was steadily rising, the Florida Department of Corrections slyly passed a handful of new administrative rules into law that would have normally received a lot of push back from the public. Safely removed from public hearings and opinion, the FDOC had no trouble crafting and implementing harmful and violent updates to how they do business. First they proposed a new supermax prison to house anyone they label a gang member or a threat to the safety and security of their institution. The criteria for placement in this new prison is vague and arbitrary and largely left open to interpretation by administration and guards. Under the new rule, prisoners like Keith Soanes could qualify for the supermax although he, like many others in solitary, has not received any disciplinary infractions for violence. However, he has been labelled a gang member for corresponding with outside advocacy groups such as us at Florida Prisoner Solidarity, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), and the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP), all of which have been unjustly labelled “security threat groups” (or gangs) by prison officials.

The Florida Department of Corrections next introduced a use-of-force rule that would allow electric taser darts to be shot at prisoners who do not “comply” with a guard’s orders. There are countless instances of people being physically attacked and sprayed with chemical agents for “non-compliance” while in full restraints or a locked cell. where they pose no threat to anyone. Such was the case of Christopher Howell who was beaten to death by guards at Lake Correctional Institution earlier this year for not complying while in handcuffs and leg restraints. This level of physical violence is unfortunately the norm and not the exception in FDOC. The public would never have known what happened to Christopher if a whistleblower hadn’t stepped up. Shortly after the taser dart rule proposal, FDOC announced its plan to begin collaborating with ICE by deputizing its guards to carry out federal immigration enforcement.

The most recent rule change to be introduced is the move from paper to electronic mail. The implications of this development are far reaching as it will become harder for people to get information out and the last physical connection between incarcerated people and their loved ones will be severed. Under this new rule, all communication will be digitized, monitored and censored to the umpteenth degree and the current lack of transparency that governs staff behavior will become that much murkier. The reasoning offered for this move echoes the safety and security line that is given for each new level of repression enacted against incarcerated people and their families. This time the alleged safety concern is the potential for contraband to be mailed in although the same reason was given in support of ending contact visitation and prisons are still flooded with so-called contraband despite the fact that there wasn’t visitation for months.

As conditions continue to worsen in the state prison system, officials focus on suppressing the sharing of information and retaliating against whistleblowers instead of working to mitigate the effects of coronavirus or responding to the legitimate concerns of the taxpayers who finance this system. Prison officials should not have the ability to disappear people who shed light on this system and must be held accountable for this infringement of First Amendment rights. Keith and others like him should be immediately released from close management and their concerns for the safety and wellbeing of prisoners in Florida should be addressed instead of silenced.

Write letters or send books to Keith Soanes at:
Keith Soanes #191981
Florida State Prison
PO BOX 800
Raiford, FL 32083

(We recommended checking the FDOC ‘locator’ page to confirm the address, in the case Soanes has been moved since the publishing of this page.)

Artwork by Keith Soanes, image shows person holding hammer and sickle with chains at arms over signs that read, “Apologize with Reparations” and “Reparations speaks louder than words.”

Soanes’ timeline of his transfer in his words:

6-24-20:  At approximately 1:15 am while housed at Martin CI, the door to my cell slid open with a loud bang waking me from sleep. Two overseers stood at the door, they ordered my cellmate and I out of the cell. One of the overseers commenced searching the cell while the other stood by watching. A 15-minute search turned up neither the cell phone or cigarettes they came looking for. The overseer searching the cell then stated, “Someone said you had a cell phone and cigarettes, you may as well tell me where it’s at or I’m going to tear the cell up.” I wanted to laugh but I was too sleepy. He started searching again, getting on his hands and knees, belly touching the ground till his partner indicated to him that he was wasting his time. I was placed in handcuffs, “Colonel Coleman want you placed in confinement, I don’t know why.” I was not surprised, no reason is needed to place me in confinement.

6-30-20:  Classification delivered close management (CM) referral which said that “through credible intelligence” I had been “verifiably linked to actions involving organizing and encouraging disturbance and unrest type activities in the community and prisoner population. This information was gained through observed behavior and reliable investigative sources.”  yeah, little ol’ me.

7-8-20:  I was taken to an ICT hearing for CM review.  ICT approved the classification officer’s recommendation. I was informed that it was still up to the State classification office in Tallahassee and I had the right to appeal ICT’s recommendation.

7-9-20:  I submitted a grievance appeal to State classification office in Tallahassee.  

7-10-20:  I was moved from D2219 cell to D1120 cell and informed that I was pending transfer, State classification had approved my placement on CM within 48 hours of even receiving, much less reviewing, my grievance appeal. Straight up bypassing every other prisoner pending CM and who had attended ICT long before I did.

7-23-20:  I was transferred to Florida State Prison where I am currently housed on CM-1 status, solitary housing, 24-hour lockdown.

7-28-20:  Upon still not receiving acknowledgement receipt of my 7/9/20 appeal grievance, I submitted a request to FSP classification (department) regarding state classification’s approval of ICT’s recommendation and placement on CM. The response informed me that I was approved by state classification on 7/10/20. I also found ICT’s recommendation which was different from the original classification referral recommendation. ICT recommendation states I was being recommended for close management-1 based on information received which indicated that I managed a Facebook page associated with known radical groups and have used it to make posts that call for prisoners to organize and that allude the only way true reform will come is in reaction to violence; that I had been involved with the prison abolition movement since at least January of 2018, since then my level of involvement continues to increase and the method of achieving it has become more violent; it states that I was transferred to Martin Correctional Institution on January 18th, 2018 on a negative transfer and that in the time I had been housed at Martin I had been placed in confinement pending disciplinary five times and under investigation three times; that I am listed as a confirmed security threat individual; that I am a member of a hate group; that I am a threat to the security of the facility if allowed to remain in general population; that I did not make a statement during the hearing when ICT recommended CM-1.

9-3-20:  In response to the letter I submitted in August to Mark inch, Secretary of FDOC, I received a reply from John Holtz, the assistant warden of Martin CI and the very person who was leading the retaliatory effort against me. He responded, “In spite of your claim of retaliation, you should know that the recommendation from the classification officer and ICT were sent to the state classification office along with the intelligence that initiated the close management recommendation and both were approved for use. Said intelligence indicated that you are not only a threat to this facility security but facilities throughout the state and therefore required you be housed in a more secure environment that limits your ability to commit further acts that jeopardize the safety of the public, staff and inmates throughout the state.”

Analysis:  To the naked eye the behavior they accuse me of is terrorist activity, heavy stuff, treason… But to anyone wearing glasses, the entire recommendation is pure nonsense. Written too broadly, like the original, failing to issue legally required adequate notice, denying me substantial information needed to prepare a proper defense as is prescribed by due process law pursuant to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The recommendation also violates my 1st Amendment right to associate with political groups and because it is retaliation for my extensive prisoner rights activism, grievance writing, successful disciplinary report appeals, and for reporting prison conditions to outside organizations. Due process Law requires that adequate notice be afforded prior to being deprived property, Liberty or life. Here I am denied the most important information not only required to mount a proper defense but to substantiate the accusations against me.

  • I am accused of managing a Facebook page but no profile or name of an account holder of a Facebook page connected to me is listed.
  • I am accused of associating with known radical groups, not one is listed.
  • I’m accused of making posts calling for prisoners to organize, not one example of such content or my exact words are given.
  • I am accused of alluding that the only way true reform will come is in reaction to violence, the recommendation doesn’t state what kind of violence I am calling for prisoners to organize and react against. Is it accusing me of calling for prisoners to organize and react against prison overseers violence against innocent and defenseless people already in handcuffs, hands behind their backs? Such is not listed.
  • I am accused of being involved with the prison abolition movement as if such is a terrorist group or a crime. As if I do not have a First Amendment right to associate with political groups advocating for prisoners’ human rights against overseer abuse, brutality and lynchings as a recourse, the only genuine recourse against political repression.
  • I am accused Of my level of involvement continuing to increase and the method of achieving it becoming more violent, yet not one example of my violence is listed. In fact, I’ve been incarcerated on this commitment due to a 2005 robbery with a firearm and in 15 years I have not had one violent confrontation with prison overseers or prisoners, not even a simple fight except for the one time I got into it with a cellmate for going in my locker and stealing.
  • I am accused of being placed in confinement pending disciplinary 5 times but what is not listed is the fact that I successfully appealed the last 4 disciplinary reports including the one written by the same assistant warden, John Holtz, who is breaking an arm and a leg to have me placed on CM.
  • I’m accused of being a threat to security. Not because I stabbed an overseer with a shank but because I’m known for living by the pen, spilling ink rather than blood. They rather I be uncivilized, gangbanging and kowtowing to their so-called rehabilitation.
  • I am accused of being a member of a hate group. FDOC has the Black Panther Party listed as a hate group. A group known for promoting and advocating nothing but peace, justice and egalitarianism, love of environment and humanity. A group that inspires a classless people’s self-managed society not to mention a political party

A timeline of abuse experienced and witnessed by Keith can be heard on the Nov. 27 episode of Kiteline Radio, read by Karen Smith, which can be found here.

About Florida Prisoner Solidarity
Solidarity with people inside and out who are facing repression for their ideas or activism comes in the form of material, educational and emotional support and camaraderie. Florida Prisoner Solidarity strives to organize and provide material support for our comrades inside who face some of the most extreme forms of state violence wrought by this capitalist system. For more info about politicized prisoners in Florida facing repression or to get involved hit us up at [email protected] or find us at FLPrisonerSolidarity.org