July 10, 2014

Break the silence

OUR OPINION: State officials have been derelict in addressing prison violence, deaths

State Rep. Matt Gaetz, chair of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, suggested this week that, “If there is a problem,” within the Department of Corrections and the prisons and detention centers that it runs, “let’s fix it.”

However, there’s no “if” about it — there is a problem, a huge one.

Inmates are dying in Florida’s prisons, victims of torture and brutality. No one has been charged in these suspicious deaths, much less stood trial, despite the fact that one fatality has caught the public’s attention — the appalling case of Darren Rainey, who was scalded to death in 2012. The FBI is investigating a prison riot in Suwannee. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also looking into an inmate’s mysterious death there. An inmate in a Panhandle facility died after being gassed repeatedly by corrections officers. And there are others.

Few state authorities, from Gov. Scott’s office to his inspector general to the head of Corrections, have leaped forth to avow that they will get to the bottom of whistleblowers’ and inmates’ credible allegations of institutional cruelty, tacitly tolerated by those in charge.

In fact, the silence has been so shocking that, thankfully, James McDonough, who headed Florida’s DOC under Gov. Jeb Bush, was compelled to go public, spurring long-overdue action:

• Tuesday, Mr. McDonough said in an e-mail: “I am revolted by what I am hearing, just as I am by what I am not hearing.” He added, “These cases did not end tragically last week; they ended in horrific and suspicious deaths some years ago. Where has the leadership been?”

Snoozing, apparently.

• Wednesday, the current chief of DOC, Mike Crews, finally roused, declared himself “outraged” — two years after Rainey’s death and two months after the Herald disclosed that he was strong-armed by prison guards into a shower stall and burned to death under searingly hot water.
• Thursday, a now-energized Mr. Crews suspended Jerry Cummings, the warden of the Florida City facility where Rainey died.

But none of this should be construed as leadership on Mr. Crews’ part. Backing and filling is more like it, unfortunately. Mr. Cummings is on paid administrative leave, but the two correctional officers who are said to have locked Rainey in the shower are still on the job.

Mr. Crews said that’s because “all we have are allegations.” That’s ridiculous. These guards’ presence continues to poison an already-toxic prison environment. They should be placed on leave until the investigation is over. It’s not a judgment of guilt, and it happens throughout law-enforcement agencies and in private industry.

Mr. Crews, too, is engaging in bureaucratic double-speak instead of straight talk. Mr. Cummings’ suspension? “Part of our overall leadership evaluation at Dade Correctional Institution.”

This isn’t leadership. It’s a failure to get out in front of a crisis and resolutely vow that the brutality doled out inside prison walls cannot, and will not, stand.

Officials must take whistleblowers’ allegations as seriously as they did, belatedly, the deaths of hundreds of innocent children in the care of the Department of Children & Families. And they should learn the lessons of its failures. The children were killed by caretakers as caseworkers ignored signs of trouble. At DOC, inmates are being killed by people Floridians pay to keep the peace in a charged, stressful environment.

Yes, Mr. Gaetz, there’s a problem.

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