Anthony Vidal was sentenced to 15 years in prison — not to death — for a nonviolent robbery in 2006. But he died by the actions of the Florida Department of Corrections anyway, alleges a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Florida Justice Institute against the department in Miami-Dade circuit court Tuesday morning.
Vidal was brutally beaten and then strangled by his cellmate on March 11, 2016, at Dade Correctional Institution, a prison south of Homestead infamous for violence, according to the complaint. But the lawyers representing Vidal's estate blame the FDC for his death, saying the other inmate's homicidal outburst should have been predicted and the unstable man separated from the normal prison population. "Anytime you place a non-psychotic inmate with a psychotic inmate you’re going to have problems,” said Randall Berg from the Florida Justice Institute.
Furthermore, the complaint alleges correctional officers had time to intervene to prevent the violence from becoming fatal and failed to due so.
“His death was cruel, senseless, and 100 percent preventable," said attorney Ray Taseff, also with the Florida Justice Institute, in a statement. "He wasn't sentenced to death," Taseff said, but the institute pointed out that Vidal's death was part of what is becoming a predictable pattern of homicide at the South Florida prison.
“We all know about the horrific case of Darren Rainey," said attorney Erica Selig, referring to a prisoner in the mental health ward at Dade Correctional who was locked in a hot shower for nearly two hours in 2012, until his skin peeled off. Five years later, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office said no crime was committed.
“But what many people don’t know is that prisoners are still needlessly dying at Dade CI,” Selig said.
Between natural deaths, suicides, overdoses and murders, Dade Correctional was the deadliest prison in the state of Florida in 2016 — the year Vidal was killed — with 13 inmate deaths recorded that year. (The top ranking excludes prisons with units dedicated to elderly or sick inmates.) And the prison is the deadliest in Florida overall, with at least 45 deaths since 2013, according to FDC inmate mortality data. The high rate has been attributed in large part to poor mental health care, as well as extreme levels of violence between inmates, and sometimes at the hands of officers.
“There’s an underlying evil in that place," said a woman whose brother is currently housed at Dade Correctional. She asked for their identities to be withheld for fear of retaliation. Dade is the worst prison in the state, she said, claiming her brother has been repeatedly beaten by other inmates but officers have done nothing.
“I know that place is dangerous and I don’t want him to end up in a scalding hot shower. I’m scared for my brother," she said. “That place just needs to be scrapped and started from scratch."
Vidal's killer, Tarrin Blue, was a man with severe mental illness who had a history of violence, according to the complaint. Despite his mental health profile and dubious track record — which allegedly included beating another cellmate in front of officers just a month earlier — Blue was not placed in the prison's mental health unit. Instead, he was left to mingle with the rest of the inmate population. On March 10, 2016, Blue wound up in administrative confinement, an area where inmates receive extra supervision.
Despite other vacancies in the wing, he was assigned to share a cell with Vidal, who had been placed there on March 7, 2016, as punishment for having a bootleg cellphone, according to Berg.
Motivations for the attack remain a mystery, but the complaint indicates Blue struck Vidal repeatedly: in the head, the neck, the chest, the ribs, and even landed a blow that lacerated Vidal's spleen. For nearly 10 minutes, the six-foot-three, 221-pound Vidal cried out for help before Blue, who stood five-foot-six and weighed 167, ultimately choked him to death.
But officers didn't hear Vidal's screams. The audio system within the cell had been turned off. They were unresponsive to other inmates who yelled for help as they listened to the attack, according to the complaint. It wasn't until a routine check of the cells that a correctional officer noticed something was wrong. It took another 10 minutes for officers and medical personnel to enter the cell, at which point they described Vidal as unconscious and not breathing. At 7:55 a.m. on March 11, 2016, Vidal was pronounced dead.
The next day, Blue was transferred to Florida State Prison in Bradford County, where he served the last few months of his sentence for drug, grand theft and burglary charges. He's currently being held in the Dade County Jail, awaiting trial on second-degree murder charges.
As far as the Florida Justice Institute is aware, no correctional officers have been disciplined for placing Vidal in a cell with a violence-prone inmate, or for failing to intervene quickly enough to prevent his death.
"The safety and security of our institutions is our top priority," said FDC spokesperson Michelle Glady in a response to the lawsuit. "The Department will thoroughly review the allegations laid out in the pending litigation."
Vidal died more than two years ago, but the state investigation remains open and the FDC has not yet recognized his death as a homicide. It is one of 38 investigations into inmate deaths from 2016 still pending. Nineteen percent of cases since 2013 are still open investigations into cause of death.
That uncertainty is alarming as 2016 was the deadliest year in Florida prison history with 356 dead, until 2017 topped it with 428. An internal investigation into the cause of the spike came back in January as inconclusive, due to the number of open cases and unknown causes of death.
FDC is notoriously slow in updating records, something the department has faced criticism for in the past. The FDC inmate mortality database is current only through the end of April 2018, for example. However, first quarter numbers indicate 2018 may become the deadliest year by far, and news of more deaths continues to leak out. Four inmates died at Dade Correctional last month, according to FDC, doubling the 2018 total currently shown online.
One of those deaths was of 34-year-old Luis Aracena, who succumbed on May 20 to a severe asthma attack, according to another inmate. The witness called his wife, Brandi Pool, and told her Aracena collapsed after being rejected from the infirmary. Pool said her husband and other inmates tried to call nearby officers for help. "They were told he was fine and to stop pounding on the glass," Pool said. He tried CPR, Pool said, but air wouldn't enter Aracena's lungs. "His airway was totally blocked."
This story has been updated to reflect new developments. The original version of this article misstated where Tarrin Blue was sent after the incident on March 11, 2016, at Dade Correctional.