ZEPHYRHILLS — When his family tried to visit him at the state prison in Raiford years ago, Joe Hayes refused to see them.
Soon afterward, he sent them a letter.
"He said it was a dangerous place," recalled his younger sister, Michaele Hayes. "He said don't attempt to visit."
Last month, while incarcerated at Zephyrhills Correctional Institution, Joe Hayes, 54, suffered multiple injuries and was taken to Lakeland Regional Hospital, where he died April 21.
The Polk County Medical Examiner classified the case as a homicide and said Hayes died of multiple injuries caused by blunt force trauma. The Florida Department of Corrections has been tight-lipped about the circumstances surrounding his death. Spokeswoman Ann Howard didn't confirm a death had occurred, only that there was an internal investigation at the prison.
"When it is complete, we will release whatever qualifies as public record," she said.
Michaele Hayes said the agency has told the family little about what happened.
"They were very vague," she said. She said she asked what would happen to an inmate that would "do something like this."
"They just said it depends on the investigation," she said.
Michaele Hayes said staff at Peel Funeral Home in the Panhandle town of Bonifay, where Hayes is set to be buried today, reported that one of her brother's ears was black and swollen and noticed bruising on his face and arm.
She said she's saddened but not really surprised. During the 31 years her brother has been incarcerated, he's been beaten numerous times, she said. At one point, she contacted Amnesty International and the Red Cross.
Records show Hayes, whose occupation was listed as a hospital orderly, was serving a 99-year prison term for a series of burglaries and rapes that occurred in 1980 in Charlotte County. Police reports on those crimes were not available this week, as officials said the cases were too old.
Michaele Hayes described her brother as "smart" and said he was fluent in German and Latin. After earning a nursing degree, he accompanied a group of nurses on a mission trip to Africa, she said.
When she visited him once, before he was in prison, he had a pet kitten and took her on nature walks.
"He knew the names of the all the leaves and the trees," she said.
The last time authorities investigated an inmate killing at the Zephyrhills prison, it was ruled justifiable homicide. In 2010, 68-year-old Augutus King died after his cell mate, James Hugger, 52, gripped him in a headlock after King took a swing at him.
The reason for the altercation? A dispute over a towel.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.