Jerry Cummings — the warden at Dade Correctional Institution at the time a mentally ill inmate was allegedly tortured and killed in a scalding hot shower — has been fired, the chief of Florida’s Department of Corrections announced Thursday.
Cummings, who has worked in the state’s corrections system for nearly three decades, was terminated less than a week after DOC Secretary Michael Crews suspended him in connection with the death of another inmate at the Florida City state prison.
In scathing language, Crews said 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 Miami Herald articles about the systematic abuse of inmates in its transitional care unit, or psych ward.
“We need leaders [at DCI] who will act with urgency to protect the safety of the inmates and staff and hold individuals accountable when needed,” Crews said in a written statement, adding that he hoped the firing would “send a message” throughout the state prison system.
Corrections officers at DCI have been accused of widespread abuses, including placing prisoners in scalding showers, taunting them needlessly, forcing them to fight each other for sport and withholding their meals.
Two years ago, Darren Rainey, 50, was forced into one of the psych ward’s small showers and left there by the guards, who laughed at him as he screamed in agony while the scalding water beat upon his body. The shower had been specially rigged so that the water temperature was controlled from a small closet accessible by corrections officers.
They left him there, and when they returned two hours later, he was dead and his skin was falling off his body.
Those same corrections officers not only kept their jobs, but two of them were promoted by Cummings after Rainey’s death.
“It’s great that the Department of Corrections is taking tighter control of the reins,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
“But firing the warden, while not holding the guards who were clearly responsible for Darren Rainey’s brutal murder — and keeping them on the job and promoting them doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
The ACLU, along with church leaders and other humanitarian groups, have asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Rainey’s death.
Crews, who visited DCI last week, said as DOC “continued to dig into happenings” at the prison, he learned that two of the corrections officers on duty the night of Rainey’s death had resigned.
The officers, Cornelius Thompson and Roland Clarke, were previously identified as the guards most closely involved in the incident.
Thompson resigned a year ago and Clarke resigned last week, Crews said in his press release, noting that Cummings failed to tell him that the officers had left the department.
He also called upon police to wrap up their probe, which has languished for years.
“This investigation has taken too long, and it’s time to get the facts so we can take any additional steps necessary,” Crews said.
The Rainey case went largely uninvestigated by authorities until two months ago, when the Herald began asking questions about how he died and why the Department of Corrections — and Miami-Dade police — had ignored evidence and failed to question key witnesses who claimed to have information that he was killed by corrections officers.
Police detectives, who were called that night to investigate, did not save the 911 tape, an indication that they did not suspect foul play. As a result, witnesses — including medical staff members on duty that night, allege that Rainey’s death was covered up. To date, no one has been held accountable or charged in the case. The guards remain on duty.
Rainey’s brother, Andre Chapman, has still not been given the cause of death by the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner.
Bill Curtis, spokesman for the Local 2011, representing state corrections officers, said the union is — and has been — concerned about Rainey’s death as well as other cases of inmate deaths throughout the prison system.
He blamed cutbacks in funding for the loss of experienced corrections officers, as well as the deterioration of prison facilities. The cutbacks in staff have forced guards to work long hours in poor working conditions.
“We believe this is not the case of a few bad apples as explained by the administration but is symptomatic of larger problems within the department,” Curtis said.
He added that while firing Cummings was a good first step, DOC officials also need to look at middle managers who were in charge the night of Rainey’s death.
The Herald has, in recent weeks, started investigating other suspicious deaths in the prison system, including one at Franklin Correctional Institution, where a 27-year-old man who had been critically ill was not only denied medical attention, but was repeatedly gassed by corrections officers until he died. Randall Jordan-Aparo’s 2010 death also was covered up by prison officials, according to a subsequent investigation by three DOC investigators with the agency’s inspector general’s office.
Those investigators filed a federal whistleblower lawsuit against their boss, DOC inspector General Jeffrey Beasley, as well as Gov. Rick Scott’s Chief Inspector General, Melinda Miguel, two weeks ago, claiming that when they tried to expose possible criminal acts by the prison’s staff, they themselves were targeted by Beasley and other top DOC leaders for retribution.
Miguel referred the DOC investigators to the state’s Human Relations Commission, which looks into whistleblower complaints filed by state employees. She also said she would open an internal inquiry into whether the DOC was covering up wrongdoing.
To date, no one in Scott’s administration has commented on Rainey’s death. That troubles Rainey’s brother, who believes those responsible should be arrested and forced to serve jail time, just like his brother, who was serving two years on a drug possession charge.
“Someone needs to tell me why Darren died and what is being done,” said his brother, who lives in Tampa.
Cummings has a long, checkered history with DOC. He was demoted as warden at Tomoka Correctional Institution after the 2008 murder of corrections officer Donna Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, a single mother, was stabbed more than a dozen times by an inmate armed with a piece of sheet metal. A subsequent DOC investigation blamed Cummings and his top commanders for critical security breaches, gross negligence of duty and ineptitude.
Those errors, the probe said, ultimately allowed the inmate to ambush and murder Fitzgerald, who was working late at night — alone — supervising a crew of rapists and violent offenders, some of them lifers, who had access to sharp tools as part of a prison work program. Despite the blistering criticism and a demotion, Cummings’ career didn’t suffer much. He and his top staffers were reassigned and within a few years he was back on top as warden at Dade Correctional Institution south of Homestead.
DCI’s new leadership includes Les Odom as warden, Jose Lugo as assistant warden, and Colonel Victor Barber.
Cummings was suspended last week following the death of another inmate who DOC said died of natural causes. Crews criticized Cummings and other top staff members for neglecting to inform him about details of the death.