HOME | MIKE CAIN | WILLIE HOGAN | MANUELA THIESS
A VOICE FROM THE GRAVE
By ADAM C. SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001
TRENTON -- From the diary of Capt. Willie Hogan, Florida prison guard:
A Thursday -- "(A prison nurse) related . . . that inmate was beaten so badly that his tooth was knocked out, kicked in the kidneys until he was urinating blood and kicked in the groin."
A Wednesday -- "This technique of alleged physical and verbal abuse is out of control. Testimony suggests that (high-level prison administrators) are integral parts in or masterminds behind the abuse and coverups.
"Where do you go?"
A Tuesday -- "In (my) 19 years of employment at Lancaster I've never seen psychopathic personalities operate so freely as in the past two years. It's as (if) these people enjoyed abusing both verbally and physically."
Another Wednesday -- "I will not support beating of inmates and falsifying reports or allow staff to be verbally abusive. The judge's sentence was the punishment, not for the officers to punish inmates."
A voice from the grave
There's a saying among prison officers: Do your eight and hit the gate.
In other words, finish your shift and forget the cesspool at work as you pass through the razor wire to go home. Otherwise, the job will eat you up.
Capt. Hogan, a veteran officer with a spotless record and stubborn sense of right and wrong, couldn't follow that advice.
He spent the final years of his life trying to drink away and write away the dark world of punishment in which he worked. He kept a private, detailed journal chronicling the abuse, racism and coverups he said were rampant behind bars.
Hogan -- an officer at Lancaster Correctional Institution, a youthful offender prison in northwest Florida -- was convinced his bosses were trying to push him out because he would not tolerate physical and verbal abuse of prisoners.
To protect himself -- and to document problems he felt helpless to fix -- he constantly wrote in notebooks tucked into a green nylon case. His supervisors wanted to look the other way, he said, and inmate grievances or reports explaining uses of force against prisoners were routinely buried or never completed.
Late in 1999, Hogan gave the St. Petersburg Times a copy of his 1998 journal and parts of his 1999 journal. He did it with the understanding they would remain secret, at least until his retirement. He would not risk his job and pension by speaking out while working in the department. He also harbored hope that things might improve.
Hogan planned to retire in 2004, after he hit 25 years with the Department of Corrections. But gin and vodka, sipped after work alone in his Chiefland mobile home, wrecked his liver and his dreams.
On Dec. 1, his 43rd birthday, Hogan collapsed and died inside his grandmother's Gilchrist County home. Cause of death: cirrhosis of the liver.
"The prison did it to him. And he did it to himself," said Sharon Thomas, his older sister. "He drank to relieve the stress and problems at the prison, but he wouldn't talk about it. He'd just say, "You wouldn't understand. Unless you worked in it, you wouldn't understand.' "
Hogan was a quiet man who saw corrections as serious, honorable business. Now he is speaking up from the grave, through his grim diary of life in a Florida prison.
His neatly scripted notes are made public here because of his death. They provide a remarkable look inside a prison system normally shielded from public view by perimeter fences and a strict code of silence among officers.
As Hogan described it, it's a world where dedicated and professional officers are too often overshadowed by rogue guards who do as they please. Cliques of bullying and sometimes racist officers, ignored or backed by higher ups, set the tone for conduct on certain shifts.
Doctored-up disciplinary reports and verbal and physical abuse are common. Officers who don't go along find themselves pegged as inmate lovers and reassigned to lousy shifts and assignments.
Hogan identified at least 50 officers at Lancaster he suspected of regularly mistreating inmates and routinely filing bogus disciplinary reports. The result, he wrote, was that inmates often were punished, sometimes put in confinement or even sprayed with Mace, whether or not they did anything wrong.
"There appears to be no means to report (these abuses) any higher up the chain of command because all levels appear to know about this tactic," he wrote on Aug. 4, 1998.
'Strictly by the book'
Prisoners and officers say abuse of inmates rarely occurs out in the open. It happens in confinement cells, in showers, storage rooms and out-of-view nooks on the compound. The only witnesses are fellow officers, who often will back up whatever a colleague says, or inmates, whose word won't be trusted.
The allegations filling Hogan's spiral notebook are not eyewitness accounts. They come from what he heard from other officers, prison staffers, and inmates he deemed credible. His firm suspicions were based on more than two decades of prison experience, including a stint as an internal investigator, and a keen eye for spotting dubious official reports.
Beginning in 1979, consistently outstanding evaluations pegged Hogan as a quiet and hard-working professional who worked well with staff and inmates alike. But by the time he started the 1998 diary obtained by the Times, he felt isolated. Lancaster, he said, was increasingly controlled by officers and administrators who had transferred from North Florida Reception Center, a prison where thuggishness was common.
Inmates and other officers told him some officers were working hard to get him ousted, including ordering inmates to file complaints against him. Other officers told Hogan his bosses referred to him as a "n---." Groups of officers went over his head, complaining to the prison colonel about Hogan not backing them up enough.
"Capt. Hogan was sharp as a whip, but none of the white officers wanted to take orders from a black officer, and it was hard for him to do his job," said Dennis Douglas, a former Lancaster officer who is white.
Prisoners regularly went to Hogan with their complaints.
"Other officers looked at it as he was just protecting his homies (black inmates), but really the only reason those inmates went to see him is because they were getting knocked around and they knew Capt. Hogan was fair," Douglas said. "He was strictly by the book."
Inmates told him about being slammed against walls or having their genitals doused with Mace while isolated in confinement. They complained of racial slurs or harassment. They often told him officers would step up their mistreatment when Hogan was off duty.
"Your War Daddy Capt. Hogan can't help you now," officers would supposedly say, threatening prisoners with more punishment if they said anything to Hogan.
"I've received numerous complaints from various inmates that if they voiced complaints to me, they are usually retaliated against on Fridays and Saturdays (his days off). In some cases inmates reported that they were physically abused for reporting incidents, and information is passed from shift to shift by various officers who would retaliate against the inmates for something that happened on a previous shift," Hogan wrote on June 10.
His entries grew more and more frequent, and the tone more and more frustrated as the months went on.
"It gets increasingly difficult to perform duties when you are constantly aware of sgts and (officers) reporting every minute move you make in effort to discredit you," he wrote July 23.
Aug. 26: "(Another officer) informed me he was glad I was on third shift because inmates were being beaten prior to my coming to the shift. He wanted to tell someone about it but was afraid (another captain) would target officers that weren't a part of the physical abuse. (He) further stated that certain officers were trying to discredit me because I didn't allow them to mistreat inmates."
Hogan felt helpless. Superiors didn't want to hear about problem officers, and investigators protected them.
Aug. 18, 1998: "If we continue to let officers . . . who have no reservations about lying on reports to (abuse inmates) then it is just a matter of time before we have a situation like occurred at Charlotte CI. " In 1998, officers at Charlotte were indicted for covering up the beating of an inmate who later committed suicide. Most were acquitted.
"When you talk to the colonel about it, it's like the officer is always right and the "convict' is lying. Or you're targeted for not going along with the program. If you talk to inspector . . . it's "lock the convict up for 180 days until he recants his allegations.' "
As Hogan saw it, administrators were more concerned with curbing complaints about abuse than curbing actual abuse.
In September, he was called into a meeting with Col. Jeffrey Wainwright and assistant warden George Sapp. The discussion turned to Hogan's rocky relationship with his bosses.
"We're all together as a team'," he said they told him repeatedly. " "You need to help us stop the physical abuse allegations'. . . . They then stated that Tallahassee was on their asses about the allegations and the FBI had launched an investigation at (North Florida Reception Center) . . . Previously, when I attempted to talk to (the colonel) about the crazy things that officers were doing to inmates, he would brush me off . . . or block my efforts to have the officers follow the rules. Now I'm on the "team' when I couldn't get a ticket to get into the ballpark before."
Hogan, who in 1975 was Trenton High's first African-American quarterback, went to Florida State University to study business. But he missed his rural hometown and returned to Trenton in 1977 without a degree. He never married but had three daughters, one of whom he raised as a single father.
For young men and women in rural north-central Florida, a career working behind bars offers a way to earn health benefits and the promise of a pension without first getting a college degree. Hogan became a corrections officer at Lancaster, earning $348 every two weeks.
A sterile complex of brick and concrete buildings, Lancaster sits isolated amid the rolling hills and oaks 35 miles west of Gainesville. The prison houses 500 inmates between 19 and 24 years old.
They are car thieves, crack dealers and armed robbers, and many take medication to control mental illnesses. Prison officials describe them as some of the toughest inmates in the system and put them through military-style drills, chanted creeds and vocational programs. More than half are minorities, kept in line by a security staff that is 87 percent white.
Many Lancaster alumni say they will never forget the quiet black captain who stood out as a stern, but always fair, authority figure. Some referred to him as "Black Jesus."
"Once Capt. Hogan came on shift, everything cleaned up. You didn't see ass-whuppins, and the officers were calm," 21-year-old former Lancaster inmate Chester Hart told the Times before Hogan's death.
"He was strict, but he wasn't an a---. If he turned off your (dormitory) TV early, he'd tell you, "You're making too much noise, or you're being disrespectful to officers. The TV's going off.' The other officers would make you stand up against the wall for four hours," Hart said.
A new assignment
In 1993 former warden Linda Buby tapped Hogan to be prison inspector, ferreting out improper behavior by inmates and staffers. His two decades of evaluations made him a perfect fit for internal watchdog, someone "completely trustworthy" who knows the rules and understands the precarious line in prison between chaos and control.
Friends and family members of Hogan say the assignment brought on intense stress, particularly after Buby left Lancaster. A new administration, he felt, was less interested in shining a spotlight on problematic staffers.
In 1996, Hogan was promoted to captain and moved back into Lancaster's security detail. Department of Corrections records show he told a departmental investigator last year that he knew he had to leave the prison inspector job when one of his bosses asked him to cover up investigations.
Racial tensions increased Hogan's isolation. Soon after Buby left Lancaster, so did every other high-ranking African-American. Word began to spread among black officers to be wary of the new Lancaster leadership.
"Affirmative action was out, and the KKK was in when the new administration arrived at Lancaster," Hogan said one upper-level officer warned him.
Other than his green book and his liquor, Hogan's only outlet appeared to be his father, a yes-sir, no-sir dad with his own strict moral standards. After his prison shifts, Hogan would spend hours with his father by the back of Hogan's pickup, the two of them smoking and immersed in intense discussion.
Late in the summer of 1999, after a Florida State Prison inmate died following a violent altercation with prison officers, a friend persuaded Willie Hogan to meet a Times reporter at a Citrus County coffee shop.
Speaking off the record, Hogan earnestly described his concerns about the direction in which Florida's prison system was headed. He worried about a North Florida "network" of officers and administrators who saw no problem trampling rules and protecting and promoting one another. It extended well beyond Lancaster, he said.
He mentioned the diaries he kept and eventually provided a copy of one to the Times.
Hogan last spoke to the Times in the summer of 2000, shortly before going on extended sick leave. Nothing had changed, he said. He doubted it ever would.
Alcohol abuse is a well known job hazard among corrections officers, who spend much of their lives working among society's refuse. For Hogan, booze was a stress reliever -- and a death sentence.
Even officers who couldn't stand him say they never saw alcohol affect his job performance, but it was clearly taking a toll on his body. As his liver gave out, he started becoming bloated. Family members noticed nose bleeds.
In early 2000, doctors attached a pump to Hogan's side to do what his liver no longer would. In July, Hogan underwent surgery for a ruptured hernia and went on extended sick leave from which he never returned.
"To the very end he would say, "I'm getting better, and I'm going back to work,' " his sister Sharon Thomas said. "He'd barely be able to walk, but he'd say, "I've got to get back to work. There are things I need to do.' "
On Dec. 1, Hogan sat shivering in his grandmother's Trenton living room. "I'm so cold," he said, and his grandmother knew he would soon leave her.
His brother pulled up outside, and Hogan stood and slowly walked to the door to talk to him. He collapsed and died.
At Lancaster Correctional, the flag flew at half staff in his honor. The quiet captain constantly scribbling in his green notebook.