Miami-Dade County

Prison death is one of several raising questions in Florida

Six years ago on June 25, Donna Fitzgerald, a 50-year-old corrections officer at Daytona Beach’s Tomoka Correctional Institution, was stabbed more than a dozen times with a piece of sheet metal.

She was found dead, slumped over a pushcart, her blood spilled on the concrete floor of a prison paint room.

A subsequent investigation by Florida’s Department of Corrections’ inspector general blamed the warden, Jerry Cummings, and his top commanders for critical security breaches, gross neglect of duty and ineptitude. Those errors, the probe said, ultimately permitted an 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.

Cummings, a career corrections administrator, was at the helm of the institution on June 23, 2012, when mentally ill prisoner Darren Rainey was locked in a shower/decontamination unit, allegedly as punishment for not cleaning up feces in his cell. Rainey, 50, was left in the small stall for almost two hours, pleading for help as the guards turned the hot water on full blast and then walked away. When he was found, collapsed, and dead, his skin was separating from his body.

No one has been disciplined in connection with Rainey’s death, and, in fact, two of the corrections officers on duty that night were promoted after the incident. Police treated it as an unexplained death in custody and only recently — after the Herald visited the prison and obtained public records — began interviewing witnesses.

Cummings and several top staffers was suspended for a week last month, but it had nothing to do with Rainey. An inspection found the kitchen facilities overrun with rats and roaches.

Cummings declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a written statement said the prison system has no tolerance for inmate abuse and “a strong track record of taking immediate, decisive action’’ when law enforcement provides them with evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Rainey’s is not the only recent death to raise eyebrows, trigger investigations and cast a harsh spotlight on the management of the nation’s third-largest prison system. Currently, there are seven Florida prison deaths being probed by law enforcement, including two deaths this year at Charlotte Correctional Institution in Punta Gorda.

This is true even though it is the Florida Department of Corrections that decides whether a criminal investigation should be conducted.

Joseph McDonough, a former secretary of the Department of Corrections who was brought in during a previous period of upheaval, says he is disturbed by what he is observing.

“Here, you see the death of a scalded inmate and vicious beatings of others with all sorts of suspicious circumstances,” he said. “These are the same signs I noticed when I walked in the door in 2006 — and it should be sending off alarm signals.’’

Death Row scandal

In what was possibly the department’s most infamous death case, nine corrections officers at Florida State Prison in Starke stormed the cell of Death Row inmate Frank Valdes at about 3 a.m. on July 17, 1999. The officers took turns wildly beating Valdes, stomping on him so fiercely that many of his organs and bones were crushed.

Then, according to other inmates, the guards threw his corpse into a hallway, cleaned his bloody cell with bleach and put him in another cell before calling 911.

For months after the beating, DOC officials called Valdes’ death a suicide, insisting he inflicted his own injuries by diving headfirst off his bunk, striking the bars of his cell.

The autopsy, however, clearly showed bootprints embedded in his skin.

Prison activists and lawyers for inmates say that was not the first time nor the last that a prison beatdown by guards was disguised to look like an accident. Families of inmates often never know how their loved ones were injured or died.

Prisoners can be hesitant to challenge abuse or make accusations for fear of retribution.

One inmate who did file a complaint about abuse was Richard Mair, who submitted a grievance saying guards at Dade Correctional were taunting and abusing inmates in the mental health facility, known as the Transitional Care Unit. He said he didn’t name the inmates because he didn’t want to get them in trouble. He was told if he wanted anything done, he had to name names, both of victims and of offending corrections officers, and cite dates.

Mair, 40, did as he was told, writing out a new complaint last September. He said corrections officers had beaten, belittled and sexually abused inmates, smuggled in contraband for favored prisoners and forced inmates to fight each other for the entertainment of staff. Then, according to the police report, he hanged himself from an A/C vent, tucking the accusations into a pocket sewn into his boxer shorts. Still, none of the guards he named were disciplined.

Independent review

“There are inherent problems that exist in all prison jails and lockups in the United States when people die in custody,’’ said Michael Baden, a nationally recognized forensic pathologist and former chief medical examiner for New York City.

Baden is a member of New York state’s prison Medical Review Board, an independent body that reviews all in-custody deaths because, according to Baden, “there is always the possibility of bias, and the next of kin is always concerned about who is telling the truth.”

The board is part of the state’s Commission of Correction, which is considered New York’s jail watchdog.

“The board was created because there was a concern that local investigators were too close to the deaths. Everybody knew each other — the police, the medical examiner, the doctors, the prosecutors,” Baden said. “The belief was that they all have a bias, whether intentional or unintentional.’’

Revolving door

Mike Crews, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, declined to be interviewed for this story.

His appointment, in 2012. made him the sixth top administrator in the department in six years. Prior to becoming secretary, Crews was second in command at the agency.

Through the changes in leadership, a constant has been the issue of inmate abuse — and in-custody deaths. It has grabbed the attention of prison activists, civil rights advocates and human rights activists. Florida’s prisons have also caught the eye of the Justice Department.

The turmoil began in 2006, when the feds arrested then-DOC Secretary James Crosby and his deputy, Allen Clark, on corruption charges.

Crosby had been a politically connected rising star — despite criticism surrounding his leadership. He was the warden at Florida State Prison at the time of Valdes’ killing.

Though Crosby was on vacation at the time of the attack, critics maintain that he was part of Florida’s “good ol’ boy’’ culture that turned a blind eye to corruption and abuse and rewarded and promoted known “goon squads’’ that had been beating inmates at the prison.

“When the head of an agency is diseased with corruption, it spreads like wildfire,’’ said McDonough, who replaced Crosby and was tasked with cleaning up the agency in 2006.

McDonough, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology and West Point graduate who served as a U.S. Army colonel, said he wasn’t prepared for how deep the wrongdoing went in the state’s prison system.

Virtually every part of the agency was tainted in some form, he said.

Dozens of wardens, deputy wardens, regional supervisors, administrators and corrections officers were either fired or forced to resign under McDonough’s leadership, which lasted just two years.

“There are some very ominous signs that there are problems that have returned to the system that I hoped we had gotten rid of,’’ said McDonough, who is now retired.

Inquiry reopened

On Friday, DOC’s inspector general, Jeffrey Beasley, announced that he would reopen the probe into Rainey’s death. However, the department said the the investigation would focus on the operation of the agency’s showers — not whether any of its officers had committed possible criminal wrongdoing.

Miami-Dade police began questioning possible witnesses in the 2-year-old case last month. The autopsy was completed 18 months ago, but has not been released because Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma said he needs the police to finish their inquiry in order to “interpret’’ his findings.

Baden said even if the police investigation is ongoing, it is prudent for the medical examiner to tell Rainey’s family the results of the autopsy.

“The cause of death should not be a mystery here. This isn’t somebody being found dead at home alone in a shower. The issues are clear,’’ he said.

Florida Rep. Katie Edwards, a Broward Democrat, said she has serious concerns about how Rainey’s case is being handled — and how law enforcement and the DOC handle inmate abuse and deaths throughout the state.

“We need to get a grasp on why they are dying. I recognize this isn’t a country club, but given our sordid history, I want to make sure we aren’t reverting to the past.’’

The Miami Herald requested public records from the Department of Corrections on deaths in both mental health units and in the regular population.

The DOC said it does not isolate the statistics of deaths in its Transitional Care Units from those in the general population.

The DOC’s inspector general report for the most recent fiscal year lists 165 deaths investigated that year by that office.

To obtain copies of those investigations, DOC quoted a price of over $1,100 for the extensive resources necessary to sort through and redact the documents.

Randall Berg, executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, a not-for-profit public interest law firm, said all the DOC’s investigations should be public because it’s clear its own watchdog — the inspector general — isn’t truly independent.

“Essentially, the corrections officers report to the wardens, the wardens report to the prison inspectors, the prison inspectors report to the inspector general and the IG reports to the secretary,’’ he said.

“It’s kind of like giving the fox the keys to the hen house.’’

The Miami Herald last week asked the DOC’s inspector general for a copy of the investigation into one inmate’s death. The Herald was given a bill of $423 for a copy of the report.

“Do you mean to tell me that somebody has to pay $500 for public accountability? That’s absurd,’’ said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

That doesn’t surprise Fitzgerald’s mother, Joanne Dunn, who contends that the DOC is skilled at finding ways to avoid accountability.

Simply demoting the warden, and then promoting him later suggests the investigation into her daughter’s murder was a sham, she said.

“The supervisors all claimed they didn’t know she was working alone late at night when it was clear that they not only knew it, they approved it.’’