A death foretold

trial MCT

Three months ago, the Editorial Board implored the U.S. Department of Justice to “swoop in” and launch an investigation into the reports of abuse, torture and murder within the prisons run by the state’s Department of Corrections.

At the time, the Miami Herald had unearthed the 2012 death of Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate at the Dade Correctional Institution in South Miami-Dade County. He was scalded to death in a hot shower, locked in there, allegedly, by prison guards who were going to teach him a lesson. A half-hearted investigation into his death went nowhere and remains open; any trace of the 911 call evaporated; and whistleblowers on the inside have been drummed out of their jobs.

Since that time, Floridians have learned that Gov. Rick Scott’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, received an anonymous letter two years ago about the possible coverup of two suspicious deaths in prison — Rainey’s and that of Randall Jordan-Aparo, gassed to death when he tried to seek hospital treatment. They have learned that Mr. Scott defended the inspector general’s inaction — except to send the letter to the very people who were being accused of the coverup. Ms. Miguel, too, refused to give corrections investigators whistle-blower protection, leaving them exposed and vulnerable.

Since that time, disability advocates have sued over ignored abuses; DOC Secretary Mike Crews finally broke his silence about the atrocities clearly taking place on his watch and made some, so far, cosmetic changes, firing more than 30 guards — who hadn’t been criminally charged with any wrongdoing — and pledging that the agency will conduct business differently in the future.

And, since that time, Latandra Ellington, serving a 22-month sentence for grand theft in Lowell Correctional Institution, foretold her own death. On Sept. 21, this mother of four young children wrote a letter to her aunt saying that she was certain she would not survive Lowell: The ominous “Sgt. Q,” she said inelegantly but resolutely, “was gone to beat me to death and mess me like a dog.”

It’s obvious that someone at the prison did just that. On Oct. 1, 10 days after she wrote that letter, Ellington’s body was found. An autopsy showed she had been subjected to blunt-force trauma to her abdomen — punched or kicked to death, or both.

Her relatives paid for the autopsy themselves. They suspected foul play, and likely wanted to spare themselves the further agony of not knowing what happened. Indeed, some victims’ families are still in limbo, not sure how their loved ones died.

Sgt. Q turns out to be Patrick Quercioli, who is being questioned by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Union sources say that Mr. Quercioli was on vacation and not on duty when Ellington died. Mr. Quercioli has 22 use-of-force incidents in his file, but any disciplinary action remained unclear Thursday.

Ellington’s family and attorney, along with the NAACP, have added their voices to those calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to step in and clear out all the fog and smoke that too many prison officials, abetted by law enforcement — even by the governor’s office — have cast over these incidents.

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney General already are investigating Jordan-Aparo’s death. However, the Justice Department should cast a far-wider net. Something is sickeningly wrong in Florida’s prisons, and few people in charge seem to care — which cries out for DOJ’s intervention.