ORLANDO, Fla. -- After an extensive internal probe, Florida investigators determined two state prison officers in Orange County -- a sergeant and a captain -- forced at least three inmates to eat tobacco to punish them for possessing what is considered contraband in a correctional facility.
- Sergeant resigned, captain fired
- State: Inmate abuse not tolerated
- Ingesting tobacco potentially fatal
Sgt. Carl Behlen resigned from his position at an east Orange County state prison called the Central Florida Reception Center on January 28, the Florida Department of Corrections confirmed this month. Capt. Jeffrey Langford was fired February 28.
People can get violently sick from eating tobacco because it is infused with nicotine, a potent and addictive stimulant. Consuming a large amount can cause nicotine poisoning and death, Dr. Jason Brenes, the director of Medical Services at the prison, told state investigators.
“Brenes agreed that forcing a person to eat tobacco was a form of abuse, and such action placed the person at risk,” a state report said.
The Florida Department of Corrections “takes all allegations of abuse or mistreatment of inmates seriously and encourages all inmates and staff to promptly report inappropriate or illegal conduct,” the agency said in a statement this month. “These allegations were reported promptly and investigated aggressively and thoroughly.”
The Central Florida Reception Center, with 1,659 male inmates, is north of State Road 528 (Beachline Expressway) and about five miles east of State Road 417 (Central Florida GreeneWay).
The alleged abuse happened sometime between late September 19 and early 20, according to a report released earlier this month by the Office of the Inspector General, the watchdog of Florida’s prison system.
One corrections officer said she saw Behlen reach into the right pocket of his pants that night and remove a large bag of cigarettes while telling Langford “we have a smorgasbord” and “an all you can eat buffet.”
The names of the three allegedly abused inmates, along with other details, were blacked out of the 34-page report because of medical privacy laws and other reasons.
The otherwise detailed report was released to Spectrum News after a request under Florida’s public-records law March 5.
It was widely known among inmates that they would be forced to ingest tobacco cigarettes if they were caught with the contraband, the report said.
Prison officials would make them eat it, they said, instead of following the punishment policy: Seizing cigarettes, preserving the evidence, and filing disciplinary reports for inmate violators, they said. Those who wouldn’t eat were threatened with confinement.
Senior Inspector Mark A. Garcia interviewed more than a dozen inmates and multiple staff members and reviewed video footage, photos, and medical records. Garcia determined there was a “preponderance of evidence reasonably” supporting allegations Behlen and Langford abused inmates with forced tobacco-consumption punishment in bathrooms, outside the view of security cameras.
“The actions of these two individuals in no way represent the thousands of upstanding officers throughout the state who work every day to protect our communities and the inmates in our custody,” the Florida Department of Corrections told Spectrum News.
In his interview, Langford said he ordered a thorough strip search of inmates September 19 because an inmate overdosed on a different type of contraband, synthetic marijuana, a day earlier.
He disputed allegation he forced inmates to eat tobacco or gave anyone below him, including Behlen, that direction.
“He denied implementing an ‘off the books’ disciplinary process which entailed forcing inmates to eat tobacco to discourage them from engaging in contraband activity,” the report said. “He denied authorizing or encouraging Behlen to force inmates to eat tobacco.”
The report added that Langford knew “this was going to happen.”
“He explained he was ‘hitting them so hard’ recovering contraband, locking inmates up, and searching and finding contraband that the inmates conspired and lied to get rid of him,” the report added.
In his interview, Behlen acknowledged he was with an inmate caught with cigarettes but denied ordering him to eat the evidence.
“Behlen said he did not force (the inmate) to eat tobacco, but he didn’t stop him either,” the report said. He acknowledged violating policies by not preserving the evidence and writing a disciplinary report.
“There was an understanding that the inmate eating the tobacco was what should occur,” Behlen said, according to the report. “Behlen further clarified he attempted to use the practice as leverage over the inmates to attempt to uncover a contraband ring.”
Later, Behlen said, “based on common knowledge on the shift, that Langford authorized, encouraged, and engaged in forcing or allowing inmates to eat tobacco as a way to discourage them from being involved in contraband.”
Behlen said he didn’t realize an inmate could have died from nicotine poisoning.
“If he had known, he would not have done it,” the report said. “Behlen showed remorse for the abuse he subjected the inmates to.”
In a statement, the Florida Department of Corrections said it has “zero tolerance for staff who act inappropriately and contrary to our core values: respect, integrity, courage, selfless service and compassion.”