Deposed warden says Dade Correctional was a dysfunctional mess

Dade Correctional
Dade Correctional

At 2 a.m., warden Jerry Cummings decided to make a surprise visit to Dade Correctional Institution. He ordered officers at the gate to keep quiet as he sneaked into one of the dorms housing some of the prison’s most violent inmates.

Inside, he recalls, he found doors wide open, an unstaffed officers’ station, guards asleep and a roster count of inmates that didn’t add up.

About the only thing that surprised Cummings after 30 years in the state prison system was that Dade inmates weren’t escaping more frequently. Just about every area of the prison was broken or corrupted, he said, all the way down to a maintenance worker he alleges was so involved in smuggling drugs and cigarettes to sell to inmates that he never had time to do his job.

“It is, by far, the most dangerous prison I’ve ever worked in,” said Cummings, referring to the danger of escapes and other security lapses.

The manhunt continued Sunday across the state for a violent inmate who fled the prison Friday. The prisoner, who was serving two life sentences for armed robbery with a deadly weapon, managed to slip out sometime early in the morning.

It took about five hours for prison officials to get their head count straight and confirm he had escaped. It was several hours after that when police were alerted and a full-fledged manhunt initiated. Ronald McCoy, 39, got as much as a nine-hour head start. Authorities widened the search Saturday to the Tampa Bay area, where they believe he has relatives.

Although such “perimeter escapes” (as opposed to prisoners walking away from road crews) are exceedingly rare — Friday’s was the fourth in the past eight years, according to the department’s website — it’s not the first time prisoners fled unnoticed from DCI. In 2005, three inmates, including two murderers, managed to drape carpeting over the razor wire-topped fence and climb out of the compound. The fence had motion detectors to alert guards, but they had been malfunctioning for a while — a fact prison management knew but didn’t address.

After fleeing, the three carjacked a farmer at knife-point, but failed to take his cellphone. The victim called Florida City police, who chased and captured the inmates, after they crashed the farmer’s vehicle into a canal.

When police phoned the prison, no one knew that anyone was missing.

Inheriting chaos

“This was inevitable,” Cummings said of Friday’s escape. He started with the prison system in 1974 as a corrections officer, retired in 2000, then returned to the system in 2003, taking the helm of the troubled and rundown prison south of Homestead in 2010.

In a series of interviews with the Miami Herald before Friday’s escape, Cummings, 61, said he inherited a facility in chaos, and that his efforts to fix it were thwarted by corrupt corrections officers and a central office in Tallahassee that ignored every sign of trouble — including failed inspections, chronic abuse of inmates and suspicious deaths.

“The biggest challenge a warden has is to change the culture of an institution. When I got to Dade, the inmates were not the problem. The real problem was that the inmates weren’t treated like human beings,” Cummings said.

He said — and multiple sources at the prison confirmed — that security breaches at DCI were and continue to be a constant problem. One issue, he said, is that inmates are able to pay off officers to let them switch bunks or get special privileges that enable them to move about in areas where they are not adequately supervised or monitored.

The prison, Cummings said, is so understaffed that officers resort to “ghost rostering” — in which guards are listed as working at a particular post but really aren’t there.

With two officers assigned to a dorm — roughly 130 inmates — it takes only one officer summoned elsewhere to jeopardize security, he said.

In July, inmate Lavar Valentin, 35, was strangled in his cell by another inmate. He had previously complained that the cellmate had threatened to harm him. Prison rules require that such complaints be immediately addressed.

By the time Valentin was killed, Cummings was out and Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews had named a new warden, Les Odom.

“We need leaders there who will act with urgency to protect the safety of the inmates and staff, and hold individuals accountable when needed,” Crews said in announcing management shuffle July 17.

Cummings said Crews had placed him on administrative leave, saying he was getting heat from the governor’s office over news reports about problems ranging from unexplained deaths to filthy conditions in the kitchen to mentally ill inmates being deprived of food, taunted and sexually abused by staff.

Cummings retired shortly thereafter.

Death in a shower

It was late at night on June 23, 2012, when Cummings was summoned to Dade’s mental health unit after being told that an inmate had fallen and died in a shower.

Long before inmate Darren Rainey collapsed under a scalding hot spray of water, Assistant Regional Director Bill Smith had warned Cummings about conditions in the prison’s mental health ward, known as the transitional care unit.

“That TCU is going to be your demise,” Cummings recalled Smith telling him.

When he arrived at DCI in 2010, he said the conditions in the TCU were so bad that he had to hold his nose to walk through it.

“There was no air conditioning. The doors to the control rooms were broken. The plumbing was bad, bad, bad. Water was leaking everywhere. All you could smell was urine and feces. The inmates were all in soiled clothing,” Cummings said.

“I would walk in there and they would beg for food, for soap, for a toothbrush,” he said. “The officers held all the power and if they didn’t want to feed them, they wouldn’t feed them.”

The night Rainey died, after nearly two hours locked in a closet-like chamber far from his cell, Cummings knew from the outset that something wasn’t right.

“One of the things that raised my antenna was why do you pass by two other showers to take this inmate to another shower? And why weren’t they watching him?” Cummings said.

But he said he didn’t suspect that officers were, as some inmates have alleged, using the scalding shower as a form of punishment.

“I just thought they left him in there because we were short-staffed,” he said. But he said his suspicions nagged him and he asked staffers to check the water temperature in the shower the next day.

Emails show that the temperature of the spray was 160 degrees, as determined by that subsequent test. The shower had been rigged using a hose fed from an adjacent janitor’s closet. The water was controlled from the neighboring closet, not the shower area. Witnesses have told the Herald that Rainey pleaded to be let out, but the officers taunted him by asking him if it was hot enough.

Cummings, in accordance with department policy, reported his findings to the inspector general’s office, which had jurisdiction over the investigation. He said he spoke about the case to his boss, Regional Director Randy Tifft, whom, he said, assured him the inspector general was investigating. In October 2012, four months after Rainey died, the probe was suspended.

After the Herald wrote a story in May raising questions about the case and why no one had been held accountable or disciplined, Cummings said he tried without success to fire the officer who had placed Rainey in the shower.

He said Tifft cautioned him to do no such thing. Sgt. Roland Clarke, a 6-4, 300-pound former lineman with the Florida International University football team, remained on the job, although he was transferred to the South Florida Reception Center.

He resigned in June to join the Miami Gardens Police Department.

It’s not clear whether Miami Gardens knew Miami-Dade homicide detectives were investigating Rainey’s death and Clarke’s role in it. When the Herald starting asking questions and requesting documents, a homicide detective began interviewing witnesses — two years after the incident.

Miami Gardens did not include Clarke’s background check with his personnel file, which was obtained by the Herald on Friday.

Royce Dykes, DCI’s assistant warden, who also resigned in the wake of the Rainey scandal, declined to comment, except to say that the agency knew about the prison’s issues long before he and Cummings took over.

“Did we fail our accreditation? Yes, we did, and we deserved to. How Dade CI passed one — any of their inspections — is beyond me. That place when I got there was borderline to be condemned. But I inherited it,” he said. “There were numerous nights I was there past midnight welding and repairing plumbing.”

Asked for a comment on Sunday, the Department of Corrections issued a statement saying the problems described by Cummings occurred under his leadership. It says the new management is addressing these issues, “such as the documentation and reporting process of incidents, proper maintenance of the facility and procedures for accounting for inmate movements.”

Cummings said he knows some will question why he is raising these issues publicly now — when he is retired and collecting his pension, after essentially being pushed out. He admits he is angry, but believes he did the best he could with an untenable situation.

Cummings said there are some good officers at Dade Correctional, but they are undermined by the bad ones, who are sloppy, lazy, corrupt or inexperienced.

“I made DCI a better place,” he said. “I had a son who did time, so I know, more than most, that one day you’re sitting on this side of the table and the next day you’re on the other side.”

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