Antwan Johnson, a guard at the Miami-Dade Regional Juvenile Detention Center, was arrested as he was getting ready to go to work Monday morning.
A grand jury charged Johnson with encouraging inmates to beat up other inmates, including 17-year-old Elord Revolte. He died in 2015 when more than a dozen detainees jumped him – allegedly urged by Johnson.
The practice is called honey-bunning – bribing teens in juvenile lock-up with sweets or other enticements to carry out physical violence on other inmates. It was detailed last October in the Miami Herald investigation “Fight Club.”
Host Tom Hudson spoke with Miami Herald investigative reporter Carol Marbin Miller about why these federal charges are taking place now and possible reforms to Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice.
WLRN: What does this week’s indictment claim?
CAROL MARBIN MILLER: It claims that Antwan Johnson, at the time of Elord's death, organized a scheme, a conspiracy they called it, to keep difficult juveniles in line by having other detainees beat them, and that the enforcers were rewarded for this violence with treats and other privileges.
In the case of Elord's death, the grand jury said that moments after Elord had been pummeled, the kids were removed from their cells and rewarded with recreational time in front of the TV, and that in the coming days, the main culprits in this were given extra snacks.
With the charge of conspiracy, are we to presume that others maybe knew about this bounty system?
C.M.M.: When the grand jury indictment was handed up, the U.S. attorney in Miami held a press conference, and he was repeatedly asked whether the prosecutors or the F.B.I. would talk about the scope of this problem. How widespread was it in Miami? Did it extend elsewhere in the state as we had reported? The U.S. attorney was not willing to discuss that. He said this is a charging document for Antwan Johnson and him alone.
But there are some clues within the charging document. One of the clues is that grand jurors said that this was a system – they called the bounty system. The press release called it a bounty culture. And the grand jury said that all of the kids within that lockup were aware that the bigger kids were being recruited as goons, and that if you were in that lockup, you either cooperated with the system or you became a victim of it. If a guard came to you and asked you to beat up a kid and you said "no," then you were as likely as not to be the next victim.
The use of those words in this indictment were striking. You have documented and reported on this "fight club" culture throughout the juvenile justice system – not just in Miami-Dade but throughout the state. The use of that word "system" to describe this bounty practice. The use of the word "culture" presumes that perhaps this is just the first of what may be other actions to come from federal prosecutors.
C.M.M.: It presumes that at least within Miami-Dade, to which this indictment applied, this was not a one-off. There was a widespread practice in which officers were recruiting kids to mete out discipline. One of the things we can speculate about is this Antwan Johnson is facing life in prison on two counts. That's a stiff penalty for a guy who woke up Monday morning and went to work at a kid jail. And then before the end of the day, he was in an adult jail – that's a stiff sentence.
If prosecutors are of a mind to build additional cases, one would think the possibility of a life sentence is a significant inducement for him to cooperate and perhaps to help them build cases against others who were aware of this practice and were involved in it.
What has been the reaction from the Department of Juvenile Justice to this indictment?
C.M.M.: There really has not been a reaction. When the indictment was announced, we got a statement from the department that reiterated what they had said previously that they do not condone the recruitment of children into "goon squads" (those are my words). And that they were saddened by Elord's death. Other than that, we have had real difficulty getting the department to engage on this issue.
I remain eager to know what the department plans to do about all of this. When we were reporting "Fight Club," their message seemed to be if this is going on we condemn it, but we have seen no evidence to confirm that it is going on – which is contrary to everything we had seen.