Michael Crews stood in front of news reporters on July 10, 2014, fielding questions about allegations that corrections officers had tortured and killed a 50-year-old Miami-Dade inmate by forcing him to endure two hours in a scalding shower closet specially rigged to inflict pain.
It was Crews’ first visit to Dade Correctional Institution, just south of Homestead. That morning, amid some fanfare, he announced a crusade to restore the integrity of the agency, then facing a firestorm over abusive corrections officers, suspicious deaths and cut-rate private healthcare contractors.
But as Crews announced the suspension of the prison’s warden and pledged to eliminate the “few bad apples” in the department, he was quietly facing yet another crisis. In that same compound, that same morning, an inmate died while sprawled on the floor of the prison’s infirmary. For six hours, he had begged for medical attention as he complained about numbness in his arms and legs.
The embattled secretary, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott two years ago, announced Monday that he is stepping down as head of the Florida Department of Corrections, effective Nov. 30. His retirement comes after months of media scrutiny over prison corruption and the failure of Crews’ top law enforcement officer, Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing in the prison system.
That day at Dade Correctional four months ago underscored the limits of Crews’ power, despite being in charge of the state’s largest agency. It would be almost another 24 hours, Crews later said, before he was fully briefed on the circumstances surrounding the death of inmate Michael Branham, a former cop convicted in 2005 of murdering his wife, a Highlands County attorney.
Branham, records show, had collapsed about 5 p.m. the evening before. Sources at the prison told the Miami Herald that prison staff, as well as the nurses and doctors, refused to lift the 394-pound inmate from the floor, telling him to get his “fat ass up,” and accusing him of faking pain as he cried on the floor. Miami-Dade Fire Department records show paramedics were not summoned until 5:54 a.m. the following morning. By then, Branham was dead.
In the weeks that followed that death, Crews ousted Dade Correctional’s warden, terminated dozens of corrections officers system-wide for excessive force, launched a public inmate mortality online database and ordered an independent audit of the department’s soaring use-of-force rate.
He created an ombudsman to monitor how the agency cares for inmates with mental illnesses, and issued an ultimatum to prison healthcare provider Corizon that it must rectify serious deficiencies in its medical care if it wanted to be paid.
Despite his efforts, Crews could not get a handle on the agency’s corruption, which has included corrections officers shaking down prisoners and smuggling in contraband.
In recent months, it came to light that Dade Correctional Institution has been so under-staffed that corrections officers, some of them not certified, had routinely lost count of prisoners. In one such security breach last month, prison officials didn’t realize that a convict had escaped until at least four hours after he went missing. He was captured two days later in Palm Beach County.
That same month, 36-year-old Latandra Ellington was found dead at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala — just 10 days after she wrote a disturbing letter to her aunt claiming that a corrections officer had threatened to kill her. An autopsy commissioned by her family showed she died of blunt-force trauma consistent with being beaten. The death is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Days after her death, another Lowell inmate, Michelle Tierney, 48, died, with her family claiming that she had been ill for weeks and that doctors at the prison refused to treat her or send her to the hospital.
When she finally arrived at the hospital, Tierney was in septic shock, her feet were blue, she had a fever and she was suffering from pneumonia, according to her family. She died a short time later.
Crews, the sixth prisons chief in the past eight years, started his 30-year career as a corrections officer, then spent more than two decades with FDLE, serving in various capacities, including as chief of the department’s professionalism program.
In an interview Monday, Crews said “there wasn’t any one incident” that prompted his departure. But he cited a persistent budget deficit, which despite multiple rounds of cost-cutting measures, remains at $25 million.
“It’s hard to be the progressive agency you want to be when you’re constantly battling budget issues,” Crews said.
The union representing corrections officers said Crews, with his law enforcement background, undoubtedly was frustrated with not receiving the support and resources to fully staff and maintain prison facilities.
“This lack of realistic funding and the gradual deterioration of the departmental staff are at the core of the problem,” said Bill Curtis, spokesman for Teamsters Local 2011, which represents the system’s 21,000 corrections officers.
Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, who chaired the Senate Criminal Justice Committee for the past two years, suggested Crews fell out of favor with the governor’s office by insisting on money in his next budget for an across-the-board pay raise for correctional officers.
“He was pushing for it and I was pushing for it and that could have been part of the problem,” said Evers, whose Panhandle district has more prisons than any other in the state.
Crews, 53, denies there was friction with Scott, who on Monday praised him for working “hard to make Florida communities safer.” Deputy Secretary Tim Cannon, who has been with the department for two decades, was appointed interim secretary.
Crews cited stress, combined with the recent death of his mother, in explaining his decision to bow out. He said he has accepted a position as vice president of a Tallahassee-based risk management institute for self-insured sheriffs through the Florida Sheriffs Association.
Crews faced mounting pressure starting in May, after the Herald began an investigation into inmate deaths, starting with a 50-year-old Darren Rainey, who was serving two years for a drug crime. He died when officers supervising the mental health unit at Dade Correctional forced him into a scalding shower, allegedly as punishment for defecating on the floor of his cell and refusing to clean it.
The Herald then examined the case of Randall Jordan-Aparo, a 27-year-old career thief who died in 2010 after he was repeatedly gassed at Franklin Correctional Institution in Florida’s Panhandle. Four investigators with the department’s inspector general’s office subsequently filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against Beasley and Scott’s chief inspector general, Linda Miguel, claiming Beasley tried to thwart their efforts to expose and punish the officers.
Florida’s prison system is the nation’s third largest, with more than 100,000 inmates and the second largest Death Row of any state.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former prosecutor who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee overseeing prisons, said Scott should hire an outsider as the new secretary.
“I think there’s a lot of work still to be done to change the culture of that department,” Bradley said, “and the only way to effectively change the culture is to bring in someone who has not grown up in the culture.”