Tuesday, February 20, 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
Girl, 12, sister of murder victim, found safe after leaving Bradenton home

Girl, 12, sister of murder victim, found safe after leaving Bradenton home

BRADENTON — Jalyssa Shannon, the sister of 13-year-old Riverview murder victim Janessa Shannon, was found safe Monday evening after leaving her mother’s Bradenton home Sunday, authorities said.Jalyssa was found about 7 p.m., according to the Manatee ...
Updated: 22 minutes ago
Video released of suspect in sexual assault of Pasco woman, 71

Video released of suspect in sexual assault of Pasco woman, 71

NEW PORT RICHEY— Pasco County deputies have released surveillance video of a suspect in the home invasion and rape of a 71-year-old woman on Monday morning.On Monday, deputies said a woman was checking on a home at 7437 Heather St. for the homeowner ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Young child struck by vehicle in Tampa

Young child struck by vehicle in Tampa

TAMPA — A young child was injured after being struck by a vehicle Thursday morning, according to police.The crash involved a pedestrian and a vehicle near Myrtle Street and Serena Drive around 7:45 a.m., police said.The child sustained non-life threa...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Most Americans say Trump, Congress not doing enough to stop mass shootings, Post-ABC poll finds

Most Americans say Trump, Congress not doing enough to stop mass shootings, Post-ABC poll finds

More than 6 in 10 Americans fault Congress and President Donald Trump for not doing enough to prevent mass shootings, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, with most Americans continuing to say these incidents are more reflective of probl...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Romano: Until the Parkland shooting, lawmakers ignored requests for school safety funds

Romano: Until the Parkland shooting, lawmakers ignored requests for school safety funds

His words and his pleas are similar to what we’ve heard from others in recent days.Kids deserve to feel safe when they walk into a classroom in Florida. More security is needed. More boots on the ground would be helpful. Mostly, more money must be de...
Published: 02/20/18
Don’t feed the coyotes: State wildlife officials warn residents to keep small pets safe

Don’t feed the coyotes: State wildlife officials warn residents to keep small pets safe

HOLIDAY — At 6:30 a.m. on a day last November, Wanda Dean woke up to her hysterical and tearful 89-year-old mother. "Wanda, they got him!" she yelped. "They tore his head off."When Wanda went to inspect her mother’s backyard, Morris, the stray cat he...
Published: 02/20/18
Girl, 12, sister of murder victim, calls relative after being reported missing

Girl, 12, sister of murder victim, calls relative after being reported missing

Seven months ago, Jalyssa Shannon’s older sister Janessa went missing, sparking a frantic search that ended with the discovery of the 13-year-old’s body in a Hillsborough County nature preserve and, later, the arrest of the girls’ father in her murde...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Man sought in sexual assault of woman, 71, in New Port Richey

Man sought in sexual assault of woman, 71, in New Port Richey

NEW PORT RICHEY — Deputies are searching for a man who they said broke into a home and raped a 71-year-old woman on Monday.The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office said the woman was checking on a home at 7437 Heather St. for the homeowner at about 8:15 a.m...
Published: 02/19/18

Police identify man found dead in Tampa apartment

TAMPA — Police on Monday released the identity of the man who was found dead inside an apartment last week.Officers said it was Abdirashid Ali, 50, who was discovered around 3 p.m. Friday at The Courtyard on the River Apartments, 5217 Sonora Court.De...
Published: 02/19/18
Sheriff’s undercover sting nabs 26 ‘brazen’ unlicensed contractors

Sheriff’s undercover sting nabs 26 ‘brazen’ unlicensed contractors

DUNEDIN –– Pinellas sheriff’s detectives spent their weekend luring in unlicensed electrical, plumbing and other home improvement contractors to a vacant home wired with cameras.It took only hours before a stream of people arrived to work on the outd...
Published: 02/19/18