With his agency reeling from a series of questionable inmate deaths, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews announced "a huge first step" of prison reforms on Wednesday.
The initiative is designed to improve transparency and provide better training in the handling of mentally ill inmates. Crews also vowed to create a more professional atmosphere within Florida's 100,000-inmate prison system, even as he insisted that the vast majority of prison employees perform their jobs honorably.
"Ninety-nine percent of them . . . they do the right thing, because it's the right thing to do," Crews said.
Crews' reforms include special training for corrections officers and having outside investigators handle prison deaths.
The response from critics of the prison system was mixed: Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, issued a statement saying "we're glad to see Secretary Crews attempting to take the reins of the department and impose order, and wish him well."
But Simon also noted how no corrections employees have been held accountable in the shower death of Darren Rainey, the gassing death of Randall Jordan-Aparo, or the death of inmate Damion Foster.
Inmates at the Dade Correctional Institution, located south of Homestead, say Rainey, 50, angered guards by defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up. Guards allegedly locked the mentally ill man in an exceedingly hot shower and left him there until he collapsed and died.
Jordan-Aparo, 27, died in his cell at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010 after he was repeatedly gassed by guards. He had been begging for treatment for a worsening medical condition, and four investigators with the Department of Corrections claim that prison supervisors fabricated official reports to cover up the true circumstances of Jordan-Aparo's death.
Foster, 36, died in May at the Charlotte Correctional Institution on the Gulf Coast — following an altercation with corrections officers in the prison's mental health unit. The ACLU's Simon said "perhaps no reform will be as important as holding people responsible for their actions."
George Mallinckrodt, a psychotherapist assigned to Dade Correctional from 2008 to 2011, disputed Crews' statement that 99.9 percent of corrections employees are doing the right thing.
"A few bad apples?" Mallinckrodt said. "I'm sorry, but it's more than a few."
During his time at the prison, Mallinckrodt said the abuse of inmates was common. Guards beat prisoners in areas that didn't have surveillance cameras, or simply taunt prisoners by destroying their personal property. Mallinckrodt said one older prisoner in his 60s — a felony DUI offender who had never been in prison before — had his dental bridge confiscated by prison guards at another state facility.
"And then they just stomped on it, and handed it back to him totally destroyed," said Mallinckrodt, adding he didn't actually witness the event. "The poor guy could hardly eat . . . and that was somewhat typical of my experience."
Mallinckrodt said expanding the use of video surveillance needs to be a priority. The Department of Corrections recently spent about $1 million to upgrade and expand its video camera system, but Mallinckrodt said what's truly needed is 100 percent video coverage of every prison. Paying guards better wages would also encourage higher-quality job applicants, he said.
Mallinckrodt recently self-published a book about his experience working in Florida prisons. A picture of Darren Rainey, who died in the shower two years ago, is on the cover.
The book's title: Getting Away With Murder: A True Story.
Two years after Rainey's death, there is still no conclusion to a Miami-Dade police investigation into the case. The investigation has been delayed in part because police initially treated it like a routine in-custody death. Investigators did not interview inmate witnesses until after the Herald wrote about Rainey this spring.
In his Wednesday morning news conference, Crews told reporters that Miami-Dade police plan to meet with prosecutors and the medical examiner's office later this week regarding the Rainey case. It is unclear whether that means police are close to wrapping up their investigation.
Crews said that both guards involved in the 2012 incident are no longer in the prison system, but that's because they resigned — neither was fired.
Crews said the two men weren't fired because the investigation into the incident wasn't finished, and there was the possibility that some employees were being wrongfully accused.
"We had the allegations, but we try to make our decisions based on fact," Crews said.
Asked about the multiple prison inmates who made written complaints about the circumstances of Rainey's death — and were ignored — Crews denied his department has been indifferent to an inmate's suffering.
"It's not cultural," Crews said. "It's easy to think that, when you have eight, 10, whatever the number is of criminal investigations going on in an agency right now, but I can tell you it is a handful and they are the minority in our department going forward."
As part of the package of reforms being implemented, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will now investigate all prison deaths that are not from natural causes. Crews said there are 82 of those cases currently being looked at, but he could not provide more details as to why these prisoners are dying. He did say that, starting five weeks ago, there is a new procedure requiring that the warden of a prison call him directly to discuss any prison deaths, and that more information be made available as the department discusses those deaths with FDLE. The goal, he said, is "to make sure that a death is never routine."
According to Crews, the department will also:
--Expand its crisis intervention training for corrections officers "so they don't unintentionally escalate an incident or hurt an individual with our use-of-force techniques."
--Develop specialized reentry centers for inmates who suffer from mental illness.
--Create a "transparency database" for disseminating information on inmates who die in the custody of the department.
Steven Wetstein, a member of the Stop Prison Abuse Now advocacy group, attended Crews' news conference and said he was glad to see that the department is promising action. But Wetstein's group still wants U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Rainey's death. Wetstein added that tough talk from Crews doesn't guarantee that things will actually change.
"We've seen abuses, and unnecessary deaths, and we just have to see what actually occurs, rather than simply what's said," Wetstein said.