Florida man who got 4 years for stealing 4 phone chargers is beaten to death in prison

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI — Christopher Howell was less than halfway into a four-year sentence at Lake Correctional Institution, a men’s prison near Orlando, when he died. He was serving time for stealing four phone chargers from a West Palm Beach Target.

He did not die of old age, by suicide or of COVID-19, a disease that has taken the lives of 19 inmates across the Florida prison system.

Howell, 51, was killed at the hands of a corrections officer, who beat him while the inmate’s hands were cuffed.

The brutal beating happened Thursday. The Florida Department of Corrections says he was pronounced dead Friday at an area hospital.

A spokesman for the department said it cannot release the names of officers involved in ongoing investigations. Nor would it release the name of the victim, Howell, though prison sources did. He was listed as “deceased” in the department database Monday.

As is custom when an inmate dies by any means, the prison system listed him as “out (of) custody” effective June 19.

The department released a statement Friday night, naming no one and stating: “Any employee found to have acted inappropriately or illegally faces disciplinary action up to and including dismissal and arrest. FDC has zero tolerance for staff who act inappropriately and contrary to our core values: respect, integrity, courage, selfless service and compassion.”

Howell entered the prison system Feb. 20, 2019, a month before the officer in question was hired. He had a projected release date of June 3, 2022.

Howell was arrested in September 2018 after he stole an $8 folding knife from a West Palm Beach Home Depot and then walked to a nearby Target and stole four $15 portable phone chargers. According to a probable cause affidavit, he gave back two of the chargers but when asked by an employee for the others, he said “I have a knife, man” and showed it, blade pointing out.

Howell was charged with theft and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon — a felony. According to the affidavit, Howell was labeled as “disabled” with a “juvenile disposition.” He was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the arrest.

Howell was beaten by the corrections officer after refusing a command in his cell and while he was still in handcuffs as two other officers watched but did not intervene, according to inmates and one officer who still works at the prison.

The details of the beating are unclear, but multiple people said Howell was left with a broken neck and was dead shortly after the assault, despite attempts to revive him.

All officers involved in the incident were put on administrative leave.

Lake Correctional has recently developed a reputation for violence by staff. Less than a year ago, footage of a beating at the prison, apparently recorded by inmates using a bootleg cellphone, provided a window into the brutality at the facility, which houses just over 1,000 men.

The video, uploaded to Youtube, appeared to show several officers crowding around an inmate, who was sprawled on the ground as officers took turns punching him in the head.

The department’s Office of the Inspector General and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are investigating Howell’s death.

Advocates are planning to protest Tuesday at the office of Lake County State Attorney Brad King, where they will demand charges be filed against the officer who administered the beating. As of Monday afternoon, the officer had not been arrested.

State Rep. Dianne Hart, a Tampa Democrat and longtime inmate advocate who spoke with Howell’s family and with sources inside the prison, called for the officer’s arrest.

“There have been over 60 arrests since August 2019 of correctional officers, contract workers, and medical staff for a variety of illegal activities including malicious battery on an inmate, sexual misconduct charges and introduction of contraband to name a few of the charges,” she wrote in a statement. “Is FDC the new breeding ground for illegal activities?”

One inmate, who is serving 27 years for various drug-related charges, said he used to live in a cell directly across from Howell, who he described as a “good kid” with the “mind of a 10-year-old boy.” He described Howell as a “chubby dude” who is not someone who could defend himself.

He said one time he witnessed the same officer slap Howell across the face for not returning a food tray. In May, he said he heard of the officer breaking another inmate’s ribs.

“He’s an agitator,” the inmate told the Miami Herald on Monday, referring to the corrections officer.

Another inmate, Jonathan Hansen, recalled a time in February when he was taken out of his cell in handcuffs and into a treatment room in the prison’s mental health facility. There, the officer punched him in the face twice and broke his nose.

Hansen, speaking through his mother, said he wrote a witness statement and that the incident was investigated by the Office of the Inspector General. The officer stayed on the job.

Josh Shelar, who was released from Lake CI last week, says his 30 months there were marked by violence and fear. He recalled a time in January when he got a disciplinary report for being disrespectful and was taken to a captain’s office in handcuffs. He said he was beaten until he passed out and woke up with a dislocated knee. He had surgery and spent six months recovering in the infirmary.

“When I woke up, they told me if I wrote grievances against them they would take me to confinement and kill me,” Shelar said in a phone interview with the Herald. “It’s not uncommon there.”


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