Prison reform underway?

Prison officials say Florida inmate Bernadette Gregory hanged herself in 2009, but they failed to connect her alleged suicide to the threats she told relatives she receievd from a guard.
Prison officials say Florida inmate Bernadette Gregory hanged herself in 2009, but they failed to connect her alleged suicide to the threats she told relatives she receievd from a guard. Florida Department of Corrections

A year of turmoil is ending for Florida’s troubled Department of Corrections — and the New Year may ring in with a U.S. Department of Justice probe.

Sadly, that’s likely to be what the department needs to come clean and move forward from its recent scandals.

After Miami Herald investigations this summer uncovered suspicious inmate deaths and widespread abuse by guards, Corrections Secretary Michael Crews fired 32 guards and employees, instituted a new code of conduct and asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate, which has led to federal inquiries that will likely result in a full-fledged investigation. Then it became time for Mr. Crews to retire.

Just as new DOC head Julie Jones takes over, details emerged this week about a 2009 inmate death, that of Bernadette Gregory, 42, at Lowell Correctional Institution. In a news release Tuesday night, DOC defended itself against the Herald stories, saying two correctional officers were punished in Gregory’s death. However, their penalty had to do with not following procedure, not her death. Basically, DOC is still ducking the issue.

Gregory was found hanging in a cell. Prison authorities say that in 11 minutes, while handcuffed and relying on a wheelchair to get around, Gregory tied a double knot in a sheet, twisted it several times around her top bunk and hanged herself, the Herald reported.

Her family told prison officials that Gregory told them she was being threatened by corrections officers. Records show that in the days before her death, the inmate filed a written complaint alleging that a Captain Greer had beaten her, hitting her over the head with a radio.

Records show she repeatedly complained of officers ridiculing her and filing false disciplinary reports to force her into solitary confinement. Gregory knew her treatment was wrong: “I will not sleep on this. I will follow through to the end and press charges,” she wrote in her complaint on July 18, 2009. She was dead four days later. Yet apparently, no one thought of connecting her death to her complaints. The officers reprimanded were cited only for “not following procedure and failing to protect an inmate,” the department said Tuesday.

In the most shocking death that occurred in 2012, Darren Rainey collapsed in a scalding shower, where he was locked up after defecating in his cell at Dade Correctional Institution in South Miami-Dade.

Deaths of children in state care usually arouse an outcry and demands for change, but there is less sympathy for prison inmates. That’s understandable because children are deemed helpless, but there is no excuse for failure to treat inmates humanely.

We could look away, but the prison system is ours. Floridians pay for the incarceration of 101,000 inmates under DOC care to the tune of $2.1 billion a year. Ours is the third-largest prison system in the country.

In a perfect world, inmates would be rehabilitated. Failure to meet that goal leads to a higher rate of repeat offenses among the 87 percent of inmates who eventually get released. If those former prisoners aren’t ready to be re-integrated into society as law-abiding citizens, everyone loses.

With a new year looming and the accomplished Ms. Jones now at the helm, there should be an institutional makeover at the department to put an end to the unjust deaths of Florida prison inmates.