Thursday, November 15, 2018
Public safety

Prison death renews scrutiny on warden demoted after guard's slaying

Six years ago on June 25, Donna Fitzgerald, a 50-year-old corrections officer at Daytona Beach's Tomoka Correctional Institution, was stabbed more than a dozen times with a piece of sheet metal.

She was found dead on the floor of a prison paint room.

A subsequent investigation by Florida's Department of Corrections' inspector general blamed the warden, Jerry Cummings, and his top commanders for critical security breaches, gross neglect of duty and ineptitude. Those errors, the probe said, ultimately permitted an inmate to ambush and murder Fitzgerald, who was working late at night — alone — supervising a crew of rapists and violent offenders, some of them lifers, who had access to sharp tools as part of a prison work program.

Despite the blistering criticism and a demotion, Cummings' career didn't suffer much. He and his top staffers were reassigned and within a few years he was back on top as warden at Dade Correctional Institution south of Homestead.

Cummings, a career corrections administrator, was at the helm of the institution on June 23, 2012, when mentally ill prisoner Darren Rainey was locked in a shower/decontamination unit, allegedly as punishment for not cleaning up feces in his cell. Rainey, 50, was left in the small stall for almost two hours, pleading for help as the guards turned the hot water on full blast and walked away. When Rainey was found, collapsed, and dead, his skin was separating from his body.

No one has been disciplined in connection with Rainey's death, and, in fact, two of the corrections officers on duty that night were promoted after the incident. Police treated it as an unexplained death in custody and only recently — after the Miami Herald visited the prison and obtained public records — began interviewing witnesses.

Cummings and several top staffers was suspended for a week last month, but it had nothing to do with Rainey. An inspection found the kitchen facilities overrun with rats and roaches.

Cummings declined to be interviewed, but in a written statement said the prison system has no tolerance for inmate abuse and "a strong track record of taking immediate, decisive action'' when law enforcement provides them with evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Rainey's is not the only recent death to raise eyebrows, trigger investigations and cast a harsh spotlight on the management of the nation's third-largest prison system. Currently, there are seven Florida prison deaths being probed by law enforcement, including two deaths this year at Charlotte Correctional Institution in Punta Gorda.

This is true even though it is the Florida Department of Corrections that decides whether a criminal investigation should be conducted.

Joseph McDonough, a former secretary of the Department of Corrections who was brought in during a previous period of upheaval, says he is disturbed by what he is observing.

"Here, you see the death of a scalded inmate and vicious beatings of others with all sorts of suspicious circumstances," he said. "These are the same signs I noticed when I walked in the door in 2006 — and it should be sending off alarm signals.''

• • •

Mike Crews, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, declined to be interviewed for this story. His appointment, in 2012, made him the sixth top administrator in the department in six years. Before becoming secretary, Crews was second in command at the agency.

Through the changes in leadership, a constant has been the issue of inmate abuse — and in-custody deaths. It has grabbed the attention of prison activists, civil rights advocates and human rights activists. Florida's prisons have also caught the eye of the Justice Department.

The turmoil began in 2006, when the feds arrested then-DOC Secretary James Crosby and his deputy, Allen Clark, on corruption charges.

Crosby had been a politically connected rising star — despite criticism surrounding his leadership. He was the warden at Florida State Prison in 1999 when death row inmate Frank Valdes was stomped to death by guards. The officers took turns wildly beating Valdes, stomping on him so fiercely that many of his organs and bones were crushed.

Though Crosby was on vacation at the time of the attack, critics maintain that he was part of Florida's "good ol' boy'' culture that turned a blind eye to corruption and abuse and rewarded and promoted known "goon squads'' that had been beating inmates at the prison.

"When the head of an agency is diseased with corruption, it spreads like wildfire,'' said McDonough, who replaced Crosby and was tasked with cleaning up the agency in 2006.

McDonough said he wasn't prepared for how deep the wrongdoing went in the state's prison system. Virtually every part of the agency was tainted in some form, he said.

Dozens of wardens, deputy wardens, regional supervisors, administrators and corrections officers were either fired or forced to resign under McDonough's leadership, which lasted just two years.

"There are some very ominous signs that there are problems that have returned to the system that I hoped we had gotten rid of,'' said McDonough, who is now retired.

• • •

On Friday, DOC's inspector general, Jeffrey Beasley, announced he would reopen the probe into Rainey's death. However, the department said the investigation would focus on the operation of the agency's showers — not whether any of its officers had committed possible criminal wrongdoing.

Miami-Dade police began questioning possible witnesses in the 2-year-old case last month. The autopsy was completed 18 months ago, but has not been released because Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma said he needs the police to finish their inquiry in order to "interpret'' his findings.

Florida Rep. Katie Edwards, a Broward Democrat, said she has serious concerns about how Rainey's case is being handled — and how law enforcement and the DOC handle inmate abuse and deaths throughout the state.

"We need to get a grasp on why they are dying. I recognize this isn't a country club, but given our sordid history, I want to make sure we aren't reverting to the past.''

   
Comments
Animal activist who threw fisherman's catch back in the water on trial in Clearwater Friday

Animal activist who threw fisherman's catch back in the water on trial in Clearwater Friday

Michael Leaming threw a fisherman's catch back in the water to “save it,” went viral with millions of views, and now faces trial for what he did.
Updated: 28 minutes ago

Pasco deputies: Stop. Driving. By. Stopped. School. Buses.

Deputies started monitoring school bus stops on U.S. 19 after the Sheriff’s Office heard complaints that drivers aren’t stopping.
Updated: 3 hours ago
Police: French bulldog puppy, worth thousands, fraudulently purchased at Largo pet store

Police: French bulldog puppy, worth thousands, fraudulently purchased at Largo pet store

Largo police are searching for a person they say stole a French bulldog puppy from a puppy store in Largo. Police are searching Hillsborough County, where the suspect is said to reside.
Updated: 4 hours ago
Police release name of man accused of leading officers on car chase that ended in crash

Police release name of man accused of leading officers on car chase that ended in crash

Reginald Mosley, 31, is charged with fleeing from police and attempted carjacking, among other crimes. A passenger in the car he was driving is still at large.
Updated: 6 hours ago
Charges are being filed against the homeless vet and couple who raised $400,000 for him online

Charges are being filed against the homeless vet and couple who raised $400,000 for him online

The heart warming story of a homeless veteran who saved a woman was all a scheme to make money, prosecutors in New Jersey say.
Updated: 8 hours ago
Wesley Chapel baby dies after falling into a pool, authorities say

Wesley Chapel baby dies after falling into a pool, authorities say

Masir White, who was 10 months old, died at the hospital that night, according to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.
Updated: 8 hours ago
Note in accused killer's car led authorities to Hernando park ranger's body

Note in accused killer's car led authorities to Hernando park ranger's body

Jeffrey Morrison told authorities in June that he'd killed his girlfriend, Mitzi Babb. When they searched his car, they found a message on a piece of cardboard that led them to a river.
Updated: 8 hours ago
The Daystarter: The Rays’ Blake Snell takes the Cy Young; Red Tide is stalling the growth of Pinellas tourism; and catch up on all the latest Florida recount news.

The Daystarter: The Rays’ Blake Snell takes the Cy Young; Red Tide is stalling the growth of Pinellas tourism; and catch up on all the latest Florida recount news.

The Daystarter: What’s it like to be called up the NHL; this father had a foreboding sense about his son; check out all the Tampa Bay Times’ podcasts.
Updated: 12 hours ago
‘Zack’ Chronister, son of Hillsborough’s sheriff, gets prison time for knife attack

‘Zack’ Chronister, son of Hillsborough’s sheriff, gets prison time for knife attack

A circuit judge sentenced George Zachary Chronister to 22 months in prison for stabbing and slashing the face of another man during a 2017 fight.
Updated: 7 hours ago
Florida woman steals lobster from Red Lobster tank, tells deputies she was 'blacked out drunk'

Florida woman steals lobster from Red Lobster tank, tells deputies she was 'blacked out drunk'

The lobster never saw it coming. And it was never seen again.
Updated: 9 hours ago