Thursday, May 24, 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
Three arrested for street racing after mother fatally struck pushing stroller on Bayshore Boulevard

Three arrested for street racing after mother fatally struck pushing stroller on Bayshore Boulevard

TAMPA — The two cars raced each other along Bayshore Boulevard just before noon, witnesses told police. One was a black 2018 Mustang. The other a gold Nissan. They sped side-by-side, trading the lead, police said, despite the traffic and pedest...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Son tells NC police he found dog leash around neck of strangled Hillsborough developer Bill Bishop

Son tells NC police he found dog leash around neck of strangled Hillsborough developer Bill Bishop

After a prominent Hillsborough County developer died last month in North Carolina, word spread it was a heart attack that claimed his life.But records from that state show the death of William "Bill" Bishop was much more complicated.His 16-year-old s...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Woman hit, killed while crossing road in Tampa

TAMPA — A pedestrian was struck and killed by a vehicle while crossing N 40th Street near E Hanlon Street on Wednesday night, according to Tampa police.The crash took place just before 8 p.m. The driver was heading north on 40th Street before strikin...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Coast Guard suspends search for man missing from Tampa cruise

Coast Guard suspends search for man missing from Tampa cruise

The Coast Guard announced Wednesday night that it has suspended the search for a man who was reported to have gone overboard from a cruise ship that left Tampa.Officials aboard the Carnival Paradise told the Coast Guard on Tuesday morning that Brian ...
Updated: 9 hours ago

Sinkhole opens up near Bayfront Health’s Brooksville hospital

BROOKSVILLE — A large sinkhole opened up by Bayfront Health Brooksville hospital in a water retention pond between State Road 50 and the hospital’s parking lot, according to a hospital spokeswoman.The sinkhole poses no threat to hospital buildings, e...
Published: 05/23/18
Clearwater deputy fire chief resigns as report on sick leave abuse is released

Clearwater deputy fire chief resigns as report on sick leave abuse is released

CLEARWATER — A months-long probe into abuse of sick leave within the fire department concluded this week with the resignation of a deputy chief and the release of an internal review.The city paid $93,816 in unearned or unauthorized sick time, benefit...
Published: 05/23/18
Wrong-way driver, 87, dies in head-on collision, FHP says

Wrong-way driver, 87, dies in head-on collision, FHP says

BROOKSVILLE— An 87-year-old wrong-way driver died Tuesday night when she collided head-on with an oncoming pick-up truck, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.The crash took place at about 8:50 p.m. on Sunshine Grove Road near Webster Street.Patri...
Published: 05/23/18
FDLE: Victim in $480,000 scam is heiress to Wrigley gum fortune

FDLE: Victim in $480,000 scam is heiress to Wrigley gum fortune

A woman state authorities say was scammed out of $480,000 by two of her employees is an heiress to the Wrigley chewing gum fortune.The Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed Tuesday that the victim in the case is Helen Rich, 69, formerly Hel...
Published: 05/23/18
Carlton: Lowering the American flag for the newly dead at school — again

Carlton: Lowering the American flag for the newly dead at school — again

In a scene repeated at public buildings across the country, the American flag in front of the library outside my office window was lowered to half-staff this week.This time for 10 dead in Texas.In February, the American flag was similarly half-staff ...
Published: 05/23/18
Largo man broke into jewelry store, cut himself on glass and bled all over everything, police say

Largo man broke into jewelry store, cut himself on glass and bled all over everything, police say

A Largo man was arrested Monday after police said he broke into the front door of a jewelry store and stole $10,000 in jewelry, but cut himself in the process and left blood all over the store.Police arrested Jaime Williams, 31, on a charge of burgla...
Published: 05/22/18
Updated: 05/23/18