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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Internal investigation into alleged abuse at Alachua County Jail

The report concluded the “use of force” by correctional officers was justified

Family members of Courtney Smith — currently an inmate at the Alachua County Jail — are accusing correctional officers of abuse. 

The family said officers beat, tased and choked Smith while in custody, causing him to miss his first appearance before a judge. 

ACSO has been accused of neglect in the past, including the incident when Erica Thompson gave birth in prison and lost her baby hours later at UF Health Shands Hospital. 

The internal investigation began on April 1 and was completed on April 5.

On March 7, Smith was arrested after he had a mental health crisis. 

His fiance, Tamara Thomas, called Meridian Behavioral Healthcare asking for help, and they referred her to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office non-emergency number, she said. 

Smith has a history of mental health concerns and takes medication to help, Thomas said.  

“His mental health had gotten so out of control that he thought people were surrounding the house,” Thomas said. “That they were out to get him.”

ACSO officers arrived and went into the house to speak with Smith and calm him down. During the conversation, Smith stood up off the couch, and the officers saw he was sitting on a “white, crystallized substance,” the arrest report said. 

Smith was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance — about four grams of methamphetamine — according to the arrest report. 

Thomas said the drugs found underneath Smith the day he was arrested were not his and she was only looking for help for her fiance’s mental health.

“I think the family alleged that he had some mental health issues,” ACSO spokesperson Art Forgey said. “When law enforcement arrived and found an illegal substance, then that is going to take precedence.” 

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Smith’s first appearance before a judge was on March 8. Thomas was confused when her fiance didn’t show up, and the hearing proceeded without him.

The internal investigation report shows Smith didn’t attend the hearing due to “mental health issues and behavior.”

On the morning of Smith’s first appearance, booking officers tried to process him with fingerprinting, photographs and a medical screen. During this process, the internal investigation report claims he refused commands and tried to walk past the officers.

Officers tried to redirect Smith back into the holding cell for being uncooperative, but he grabbed a nearby wall and the frame of the cell door to avoid going back, according to the internal investigation report. 

“Smith was placed on the floor to gain control,” the internal investigation report reads. “Smith began to kick and thrash his body, placing his hands under his body in an apparent attempt to avoid handcuffing.”

Multiple officers restrained Smith, and a taser was used to get control of his hands. 

The internal investigation report says Smith bit an officer’s finger and left ligament damage. The officer that was bitten didn’t wish to charge Smith, citing his “apparent mental status and suspected narcotics influence,” the report reads. 

In the first appearance hearing documents, the judge ordered the mental health unit of the jail to interview Smith. He was housed in the jail infirmary until March 10, when he was taken for processing again. 

Thomas said she received her first phone call from Smith the morning of March 10, two days after he had missed his hearing.   

“He called me crying, stating that he had been beaten and choked unconscious,” Thomas said. 

Smith also said his shoulder had popped out of place, his ribs were bruised and it felt like he had been choked. He told Thomas his tongue was swollen from biting down on it after being tased so many times, she said. 

“It’s not true,” Forgey said. 

Smith missed his first appearance hearing before the judge in order to hide the alleged abuse he accused correctional officers of, Thomas said. 

“My brother — Courtney Brian Smith — is in need of a wellcare check,” Smith’s sister Von Smith said. “The involved Alachua County Correctional officers need to be investigated, fired and arrested.”

Kevin Scott, project director of Just Income GNV and Florida Prisoner Solidarity organizer, remembers witnessing inmate abuse during his time in prison. When prisoners tried to speak out against the abuse, they were punished.

“Someone reporting that the guards abuse them, I 100% believe that, because I witnessed that with my own eyes, countless times,” the 47-year-old said. “Guards will take that person into the laundry room, because there's no cameras in there, and they'll beat the hell out of you. That is common practice.”

Scott now advocates for people currently and formerly incarcerated through the many organizations he’s collaborated with. He believes incarceration removes people from an environment where they can receive humane treatment.

“There are people in prison who have no business being in prison. They need to be receiving mental health treatments, not put in a cage where they are neglected and abused,” Scott said.

Thomas was housed in the infirmary for one more night until March 11, when he was transferred to general population — the main group of prisoners within a jail that are not separated for disciplinary measures or for their protection. While Smith was in the infirmary for those days, there were no reports, entries or complaints about any injuries after force was used to gain control of his hands, the internal investigation report said.

“If he is in need of any type of mental health medications or mental health treatment, then he would receive that,” Forgey said. 

When Thomas visited her fiance for the first time on March 11, she saw visible bruises, bite marks on his tongue, taze marks on his back and a black eye with cuts on his face. 

Smith’s family members remember him not having any cuts or bruises anywhere on his body the day he was arrested. 

In Smith’s correctional photo, he has a black eye. 

“He was beaten by numerous Alachua County correctional officers while being handcuffed at the wrists and shackled at his ankles,” Von said. 

In the report, it states the video of the incident was reviewed, and Smith was resisting officers’ efforts and commands. 

“At no time during this incident did any of the involved officers use excessive force,” the internal investigation report reads. “The force used to get inmate Smith under control was justified and within ACSO policies and procedures.

Chanae Jackson, a 42-year-old Gainesville criminal justice activist, believes Smith should not have been taken to jail. Instead he should have gone through a central intake facility, where people in mental health crisis go to be evaluated and treated, especially if the family called Meridian. 

“If a person is in a mental health crisis, stabilizing that crisis should be what is first,” Jackson said. 

Often, when family members call a mental health facility, they refer them to law enforcement. Law enforcement officers then have the power to Baker Act somebody if deemed necessary, Forgey said. The officers who responded to Smith could have done so if they didn’t find the illegal drugs that take precedence over mental health issues. 

Today, Smith is still being held at the jail with a $10,000 bond amount. His arraignment date is set for May 2.

“My family is concerned that they may beat Courtney again or murder Courtney while he is housed in solitary confinement,” Von said. 

Smith’s sister has reached out to ACSO’s Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr. and Alachua Police Department’s Chief Jesse Sandusky asking for help, she said. Watson never responded and Sandusky told her he would notify the Office of Professional Standards. 

“Jail may not be the right place for him,” Forgey said. “But that’s not for me to decide; that’ll be for the courts to decide.”

Unless the court orders Smith to be moved due to mental health, he will go through the court system with his felony charge of a controlled substance. A judge will make the ultimate decision on how long Smith will serve, or if he will be taken to a mental health facility. 

Melanie Pena contributed to this report.

Contact Troy Myers at @tmyers@alligator.org or follow him on Twitter @Troy_Myers1.

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Troy Myers

Troy is the criminal justice reporter and a fourth-year journalism major with an outside focus in business administration. He previously studied accounting for two years at Santa Fe College but has since transferred to UFCJC. When Troy isn’t writing, he enjoys going to the beach and spending time with his dog, identical twin brother and family.


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