An inmate at Dade Correctional Institution who pleaded to be transferred because he feared he would be killed by his cellmate was found strangled in his cell Monday, allegedly by that same cellmate.
It was the latest in a series of problems at the prison compound south of Homestead, which saw its warden fired last month amid reports of persistent management problems. Those problems ranged from filthy conditions in the food preparation area to unexplained deaths that are now under investigation to allegations that mentally ill inmates were deprived of food, taunted and sexually abused by staff and forced to fight each other for the entertainment of guards.
Prison protocol dictates that inmates be isolated when they express fear for their lives, at least until their complaints can be evaluated. According to multiple sources, that was not done in the case of Lavar Valentin, 35, a slightly built convict who remained in a cell with his alleged tormentor, Eduardo Carmenates-Zayas, now suspected of strangling him.
Prison system rules also call for corrections officers to conduct security checks every half hour. That, too, was not done Monday night, according to sources.
Only one corrections officer was in H Dorm, responsible for 265 inmates, at the time of Valentin’s death. That officer was by necessity deployed in a control room, not circulating to check on inmates’ well-being. The officer who would have been making the rounds had been pulled to another assignment, sources said.
As of Friday, Carmenates-Zayas, a Tampa area man, had not been charged in the death, which remained under investigation.
Valentin was pronounced dead at Homestead Hospital at 2:56 a.m., according to the police report.
One source said the dorm’s security breach happened between midnight and 2:30 a.m., as guards were taking turns watching a training video on security and staff awareness. The sources’ version of what happened is at odds with what the state’s corrections chief said about the death Monday in a news release.
DOC Secretary Michael Crews said in the release that both inmates were found in their cell during “one of the frequent security checks,” and that “all appropriate procedures were followed.”
In an interview Friday evening, Crews said he was told the dorm was not understaffed, and that he would investigate what the Miami Herald was reporting.
Police released a heavily redacted incident report that blacked out nearly everything that happened.
In recent months, the MDPD has been criticized by both the Department of Corrections and human rights groups for its handling of the 2012 death of another DCI inmate, Darren Rainey.
Rainey, 50, died after corrections officers allegedly forced him into a locked, closet-like shower for two hours and turned the water on full blast, at 180 degrees, as part of a punishment ritual. Inmate witnesses said he screamed in agony until he collapsed and died. By the time his limp body was removed from the shower, portions of his skin had fallen off.
Miami-Dade police detectives, who were called that night to investigate, did not save the 911 tape, an indication that they did not suspect foul play, and did not interview witnesses until reports of the incident surfaced in the Herald this year. Witnesses — including medical personnel on duty that night — allege that official reports submitted by staff covered up corrections officers’ culpability, making it appear Rainey had died while taking a routine shower.
The actual circumstances of his death did not come to light until May, after an inmate contacted the Herald and provided extensive documentation showing he had reported the details of Rainey’s scalding to the DOC’s inspector general more than a year earlier, and that his complaints were ignored. Another inmate also alerted the department’s IG, but no action was taken. To date, no one has been charged.
Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma has not released Rainey’s cause of death or told his family how and why he died.
DCI’s warden at the time, Jerry Cummings, was fired July 17, less than a week after Crews suspended him in connection with the death of another DCI inmate, saying Cummings and his assistant had concealed details about that death. The inmate in question, Michael Branham, was a former Avon Park police officer serving a life sentence for killing his wife, a Highlands County criminal defense lawyer, in 2005.
He shot her 13 times, news reports said.
Branham, nicknamed “Tiny,’’ was six feet, one inch tall and weighed 398 pounds. DOC spokeswoman Jessica Cary said he died of natural causes.
It’s not clear what details Cummings failed to share in connection with Branham’s death.
Crews said last month that he was firing Cummings and overhauling the prison’s leadership in an effort to “restore integrity” to DCI, which has come under fire as a result of a series of Herald reports about the systematic abuse of inmates, particularly those who suffer from mental illnesses.
Valentin, a convicted sex offender from Miami, was described as timid and non-threatening, standing at five feet, eight inches tall and weighing 116 pounds. Carmenates-Zayas is five feet, four inches tall and weighs 163 pounds.
Carmenates-Zayas, 53, was serving a life sentence for the 2004 wounding of an ice cream truck driver in Hillsborough County during a road rage incident. He shot his victim and stabbed him in the head and shoulders, then exchanged fire with sheriff’s deputies before he was wounded and arrested.
Valentin was scheduled to be released before the end of the year.
Prison procedures call for any inmate who reports a threat from a fellow prisoner to be placed in “protective management,” said Ron McAndrew, a prison consultant and former warden who worked for the Department of Corrections for 25 years.
After Valentin’s death Monday, DCI officials issued forms to all of its prisoners telling them they could request transfers if they felt threatened by a cellmate, a source said.
The prison’s new warden, Les Odom, provided Crews with a “thorough briefing,” the secretary said in Monday’s news release.
A staffer at the prison, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the prison’s staffing shortage has created serious security breaches and that log books are fudged to make it appear checks are being made and dorms are adequately staffed.
“It’s called doing a ghost roster,” said another prison source.
“How do you explain having only one officer for 265 inmates?” said the staff member, who, as do others, fears reprisal from officers and other staffers if he is identified.
The source said that the H Dorm, also called Hotel Dorm, was staffed during that shift by two officers, Sgt. Bruny Pierre and an Officer Jenkins. The first sign of trouble, the source said, came not from corrections officers doing their rounds, but from inmates banging on their cells as they heard Valentin being assaulted.