If Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz had been sentenced to death, his daily life while awaiting execution would not have been easy. However, he would have enjoyed certain comforts: his own cell, meals three times a day, clean clothes and towels, and no requirement to work.
But after being sentenced to life in state prison, his life behind bars is shaping up to be gruesome and possibly violent.
Prison experts say that when Cruz is assigned to live among the prison population, he will likely have a cellmate, be ordered to do prison work and be forced to interact with other inmates at meal times and in a room. playground. He will have to navigate the strange and often violent social hierarchy of prison life, complicated by his notoriety as a mass murderer and his history of mental disorders.
“Never in my career have I come across anyone like him in terms of his incredible lack of social skills and his incredible lack of reading of social situations. Those are the skills someone needs to function in a very difficult social world, and in the day-to-day life of the Florida Department of Corrections,” said Heather Holmes, a South Florida forensic psychologist who interviewed Cruz 12 times as part of his work with his defense team.
“They are going to take advantage of him. They’re going to take things away from him: his food, his socks, his shoes. And he weighs 125 pounds. He may know how to pull a trigger, but he doesn’t know how to fight.”
Cruz, 24, will not be in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) until after he is officially sentenced on November 1 for the fatal shooting of 14 students and three educators at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. . The stunning massacre was the deadliest school shooting in Florida.
Last year he pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder, setting up the “sentencing phase” trial in which 12 jurors considered only two options: the death penalty or life in prison. no chance of parole.
During the nearly three-month trial, Broward prosecutors portrayed Cruz as a calculated killer who craved the notoriety of becoming a bully at his school, carefully planning his attack and methodically shooting his victims, sometimes coming back to finish off the victims. injured students inside the freshman building. The Broward Public Defender’s Office argued that Cruz should be spared the death penalty because, among many reasons, he was mentally ill and brain-damaged in the womb of a biological mother who drank heavily.
Cruz will be sentenced after relatives of the dead have a chance to speak to the judge on Nov. 1. His sentence to prison is a fact. Legally, Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer cannot overturn the jury’s decision, and prosecutors said they are not seeking to overturn the verdict.
During closing arguments, assistant public defender Melisa McNeill suggested that Cruz’s life behind bars would end due to natural causes or “whatever else might happen to him in jail.” Following last Thursday’s verdict, many frustrated family members said they expected the same.
“He’s going to have to take care of himself every second for the rest of his life,” said Linda Schulman, the mother of teacher Scott Beigel. “I should live in fear.”
After being sentenced, Cruz will be sent to the South Florida Reception Center, a facility where inmates are held briefly while prison officials determine their particular needs — such as mental health treatment and educational needs — and bed availability at facilities across the state. While he is there, Cruz will likely be placed in administrative confinement for his own safety.
The DOC declined to comment on Cruz’s future behind bars, referring a Miami Herald reporter to an inmate “orientation” manual posted online.
Whichever prison he ends up in, experts say Cruz likely won’t be with the general population right away, given the high-profile nature of his crimes. Rather, she is likely to place him in what is known as “protective management” with other inmates at risk, such as child molesters, inmates who have been threatened by debt, or even ex-cops.
In “protective management” inmates are expected to work, perhaps in the library, cleaning bathrooms, or as stretcher bearers in the sick bay. I would share a cell with another inmate. The cell would be connected to a common area guarded by a prison officer.
If Cruz ends up in protective custody, it might only last a few months, maybe a year. “Whatever it takes to calm things down, and then it would be easier for the general population to access,” said Ron McAndrew, a former Florida Prisons director who is now an expert witness in the prison system.
Even in protective management, Cruz would continue to interact with other inmates who might attack him.
That’s what happened in 2017, with convicted child molester Ryan Mason, whose father said he was in protective custody at Wakulla Prison. Another inmate, Scottie Dean Allen, found out why he was behind bars and strangled him. Allen is now on Florida’s death row.
“Sometimes those in protective custody take advantage of others in the same situation,” he said. Raul S. Banasco, another prison expert and former director of Florida Prisons.
Violence is not uncommon in most US prisons. And Florida’s prison system has long been plagued by deplorable and violent conditions for inmates, as well as abusive behavior by corrections officers, issues officials have long vowed to fix.
With general population, Cruz would also have a cellmate and would have to work up to 60 hours a week. She might go to the playground, where the inmates hang out, play basketball, or just sunbathe. She could spend time in the “day room,” where inmates watch television — usually sports, nothing controversial — on backless benches.
Your reputation will accompany you.
Secrets are hard to keep in jail. Inmates watch television and can receive emails, watch movies and get information from individual tablets that they pay to use. The guards themselves do not hesitate to tell the inmates what crime other prisoners committed.
Abraham Rosado, 40, who served 12 years in a Florida state prison, remembers a guard putting a newspaper article about a new inmate — who had been convicted of pedophilia — on an employee bulletin board, which prisoners could see. The new inmate was mercilessly beaten by other inmates.
“They’re going to want to screw him,” Rosado said of Cruz. “If she is with the general population, she is going to have a very hard time with the other inmates and the guards will turn a blind eye.”
He added: “He will live constantly in fear.”
In a society where inmates often congregate with their own ethnic or racial groups, Cruz — who is white and had a thing for swastikas before his arrest — might find some friendly protection from members of the white supremacist group. But most friendships come with strings attached, because Cruz has inheritance money and a brother who could fill his account.
“There’s going to be a guy, 6-foot-3, muscular, who’s going to tell you, ‘I’ll protect you,'” McAndew said. “He will have a dad. He cannot be helped”.
Rosado said: “Without a doubt, they will try to get you to use your money to buy drugs. If he gives them drugs, cell phones and cigarettes, he might be fine.”
There is another, darker place that could end up harboring Cruz.
If he refuses to work, is caught smuggling contraband or assaulted — as he did when he attacked a Broward police officer six months after his arrest — Cruz could be assigned to a “proximity management” wing at facilities like Santa Rosa, Charlotte or Union.
That’s where the worst of the worst is, sometimes for years.
Inmates there are housed in single cells, with no access to tablets and few books and no outside visitors, McAndrew said. Exercise is limited to an hour in an outside cage where inmates can play with a ball and get natural sunlight. There are three levels of proximity management restrictions, with the least restrictive being the one that allows some work and access to a day room.
“It’s very punitive,” McAndrew said. “In my experience, it’s very effective and that helps the Bureau of Prisons.”
Even in a proximity management facility, inmates can be victims of violence.
In 2019, William Edward Wells III, known as the “Mayport Monster,” was in Florida State Prison serving a life sentence for six proximity murders. He had repeatedly complained that in proximity management, he didn’t have access to simple things like coffee, so he wanted to get to death row, according to court records.
He finally did enough, strangling inmate Billy Chapman in a “secure but unsupervised” day room, records show.
Wells, unlike Cruz, is now on death row.
Miami Herald reporter Charles Rabin contributed to this article.