Crime

A drug-addled Floridian got sent to a drug-infested prison system. Like so many, he OD’d

Thomas Tinghino said he wanted help. Instead, he got life without parole and spent years fighting it. And last month, 11 years after being sentenced, he died of a drug overdose in his prison cell.

Tinghino was one of two inmates found unresponsive at Columbia Correctional Institution on Sept. 14 from a suspected overdose. He was 48.

The night before Tinghino died, he sat and talked with the prison chaplain, his sister said. Tinghino said he was ready to give it all up and that the drugs weren’t worth it. He wanted to get back into the church and attend Mass.

Instead he became another inmate, one of dozens each year, to die from drugs they accessed in prison.

‘I knew what I had to do’

On Christmas Eve 2007, Tinghino took a $1,800 cash gift from his grandmother, which she hoped he would use to kick-start his life, and started a six-day drug binge, according to court records. He barely ate or slept. Phone calls from his mother, grandmother or sister would come in and he’d ignore them, his shame growing.

In front of a jury, he stammered about how he wasn’t proud of himself.

“I’m not a kid anymore,” Tinghino said. “I knew what I had to do and I knew how I had to go about doing it.”

In the early hours of the morning, he drove himself to an Orlando hospital, hoping, he said, his visible symptoms would get him committed with the Marchman Act, a way to get mandatory treatment for substance abuse.

Instead, he passed out in the driver’s seat in the parking lot, where police found him — inside a stolen car, with two guns and the identification of a woman.

Tinghino had been released from prison only a few months prior. He was charged with armed burglary. It qualified him for a mandatory minimum life sentence, without parole.

Tinghino said in court that he was given the car by a friend — and though he suspected it was stolen, he needed desperately to get to a hospital. He denied taking it himself.

He rejected a plea offer of 10 years and went to trial. The jury found him guilty.

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Thomas Tinghino pictured with his grandmother, sister and mother

“Had I done this, had I committed this crime, I would have taken the 10 years,” Tinghino said at his sentencing in June 2008. “I did not commit this crime. My story is true.”

Greg Newburn, the director of state policy in Florida for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the prison releasee reoffender statute ties the hands of a judge. Prosecutors are not bound to invoke it, he said, though they can if it applies. He said it became law around the mid- to late 1990s with a wave of crime reform bills that didn’t seem to analyze unintended consequences.

In 2013, when interviewed by the ACLU about life without parole, Tinghino said “Serving a life sentence is akin to being dead, without the one benefit of not having to suffer anymore.”

His sister, Judy Tinghino, 46, said her brother maintained his innocence until his death.

“He was a really good soul,” she said. “He really loved deeply. It’s just that the drug demons are just something that he was unable to overcome.”

Prison and Drugs

Overdoses in Florida prisons aren’t new. But synthetic drugs like K2, which have poured into the prison system, are easy to make with basic products and hard to detect with a standard urine test. They’re also far stronger than standard marijuana and cause intense symptoms — violent outbursts, hallucinations and seizures.

K2, also known as Spice, was identified as the top cause of drug deaths in an internal Florida Department of Corrections audit. It was also the most recovered drug contraband from 2017-2018, with 36,177 grams seized, or roughly 80 pounds

Since then, the department has launched a campaign with videos and pamphlets warning inmates and staff about the dangers of the synthetic cannabinoid. But the inmates don’t always take the warnings seriously, a former correctional officer said.

After several years of steady increases, the number of deaths in prison dropped by nearly 100 from fiscal year 2017-2018 to 2018-2019. Drug overdoses are often classified as accidental by medical examiners, but not every accidental death is an overdose, meaning, the prison system is seemingly unable to provide the number of overdose deaths of Florida inmates.

Michelle Glady, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections, said contraband can enter into the prisons through multiple routes, including officers and members of the public coming to visitation.

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Thomas Tinghino was 48 when he overdosed at Columbia Correctional Institution. Florida Department of Corrections

For the 2018-2019 state budget, the FDC made a request for about $2 million to use on contraband interdiction — things like contract staff, 24 more metal detectors and 80 chairs that scan body cavities. The Legislature denied the request, but Glady said even without it, catching contraband and checking for it is part of every officer’s regular job.

“That’s part of the operation of a prison,” she said. “Making sure dangerous contraband isn’t getting in the hands of inmates.”

In the agency’s 2020-21 budget request to the governor, the FDC noted that between 2010 and 2019, when the agency converted from eight- to 12-hour shifts and cut 3,600 staff, the introduction of contraband increased 484 percent. In the 2018-19 year alone, the agency reported 24,799 contraband incidents.

“These reductions, coupled with low wages, have had significant negative consequences, particularly in regards to staffing,’‘ the budget request says.

Secretary Mark Inch has attributed much of the contraband problem to the agency’s staffing woes and its low level of pay for inexperienced officers. He has asked for $60 million to increase pay for correctional officers and probation officers. The program would provide bonuses of $1,500 for those who stay for two years and $2,500 for five years. He is also asking for $29 million to hire 292 correctional officers in a pilot program that would reduce the 12-hour shifts to 8.5 hours in one-third of the prisons.

So far this year, at least 24 FDC employees — either correctional officers, food service employees or others — have been arrested by the Office of the Inspector General related to drug or tobacco contraband.

Some officers may be charged with official misconduct, bribery or unlawful payments, while reports detail them being paid by inmates’ families through wire transfers and CashApp to introduce contraband items.

In 2018, at least 25 employees were arrested for drug and tobacco contraband, and at least 16 were in 2017.

Methods differed — some officers would bring in contraband drugs by wrapping them in electrical tape and inserting it into their body. In 2018, one officer at Columbia Correctional Institution brought in 334 grams of K2 by putting it in her bra and and tampon, according to arrest records. She is currently in jail.

Another officer had false bottom boots. One put contraband in red bags marked for medical disposal.

Glady said the arrests show the department’s commitment to making sure staff and visitors can’t get contraband through.

A video called “Contraband Prevention” posted onto the FDC’s YouTube page warns visitors of the dangers of bringing in drugs for their loved one, showing a mother locked up for trying to bring in K2 and her forlorn children going to foster care. A cartoon man in the video overdoses on K2 given to him by a loved one, while the narrator says “Well, he’s out of prison all right. Sort of. Just not in the way he intended.

‘Not how it’s supposed to go’

On a Saturday night, Judy Tinghino got the call that her older brother had been “found unresponsive.”

She took it in. Then she asked — “Did you just tell me my brother died?

The person on the phone said they were sorry.

His sister said she hasn’t been told what Tinghino overdosed on, but she suspects it’s something synthetic, or possibly laced with fentanyl. She said based on what her brother told her during his time in prison, she suspects it was contraband brought in by the guards.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating, according to FDC. But Judy Tinghino said she thinks cops investigating cops won’t get anywhere.

“Whoever brought that in should be charged with murder,” she said. “Unfortunately that’s gonna be a hard route to prove.”

She said she can’t bring her brother back, but that other families shouldn’t have to get a call like she did.

“To lose your life at 48 years old after being in the the criminal justice system, that’s not how it’s supposed to go,” she said.

Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this article.

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