Thursday, April 26, 2018
Public safety

Florida prisons chief says wrongdoing in his agency is limited to a few

Two years after a mentally ill inmate died in a scalding-hot shower — purportedly as part of a punishment ritual — the state's prison chief visited the Homestead-area prison where it happened, telling reporters that wrongdoing in his agency is limited to a few bad actors.

"We are going to find those bad seeds and we're going to eliminate them from being able to work in our department," Mike Crews, Florida's increasingly embattled Department of Corrections secretary, said Thursday.

Crews also announced that the warden of the prison has been placed on paid administrative leave. Warden Jerry Cummings' suspension is the agency's latest response to growing allegations of abuse and cover-ups in the prison system.

The accusations aren't limited to Dade Correctional Institution. At a prison in the Panhandle, Crews' agency is accused of retaliating against investigators who raised concerns about an inmate death. The investigators, who filed a whistle-blower lawsuit, say the Department of Corrections' inspector general — whose mission is to uncover and punish wrongdoing — did the opposite in the case of the Panhandle death.

But at Thursday's news conference, Crews defended the inspector general's performance.

"I am satisfied with the work he's doing," Crews said. "I will tell you that we have had conversations, he and I personally, about doing due diligence. ...We have a responsibility to make sure that we're doing everything we can to provide a safe environment inside that fence."

The warden's suspension — effective immediately — was "part of our overall leadership evaluation at Dade Correctional Institution."

Back in June 2012, 50-year-old inmate Darren Rainey died in the shower at DCI after two guards allegedly locked him into the closet-like chamber and turned on the scalding water, leaving him to be blasted for nearly two hours. He collapsed, landing face-up on the drain, and died.

Fellow inmates say Rainey, who was mentally ill and lived in Tampa most of his life before prison, was being punished because he had defecated in his cell and that others have been subjected to the shower-as-punishment treatment.

Other employees more directly involved in the death are still working at the prison — including the two guards suspected of herding Rainey into the shower.

Crews said the correctional officers have not been suspended because "right now, all we have are the allegations." He expressed hope that a criminal investigation by Miami-Dade police, once concluded, will provide "concrete information" as to what happened in that shower.

Fellow inmates say Rainey pleaded for mercy as the water scalded him — and that guards were unmoved. One inmate said guards taunted Rainey with comments such as "hot enough?" Another said Rainey, serving two years for drug possession, was punched on the way to the shower.

By the time Rainey had died, witnesses said his skin had slipped from his body, and that guards ordered one inmate to pick up pieces of his flesh and throw it all away.

Two years later, no one has been charged and Rainey's family has still not been told his cause of death. Despite multiple inmate witnesses and one former prison psychotherapist filing reports to prison system headquarters, it wasn't until the Herald began asking questions about the case in May that Miami-Dade police and DOC officials reopened the investigation.

Crews stayed silent on the matter for two months. Thursday's press conference — and suspension of the warden — wasn't enough to satisfy some, including Rainey's brother.

Reached by the Herald, Andre Chapman said he thinks everyone involved in his brother's death should be locked up.

Kristen Lentz of Florida Institutional Legal Services, the firm that represents Rainey's family, called the secretary's actions "two years too late."

"Mr. Rainey is dead, and these actions are still a long way from solving the problems that are plaguing Dade Correctional Institution,'' she said.

At the news conference, reporters asked Crews why it took as long as it did for him to speak out.

Crews said he had hoped that the inquiry into Rainey's death would be complete by now. He later added, "You don't want to do anything ever to compromise a criminal investigation."

Crews, who once headed Florida Department of Law Enforcement's office of professionalism, said he was "outraged and appalled" by recent media reports involving Rainey's death. But that's not the only scandal Crews has to deal with.

Earlier this week, four investigators from the department's inspector general's office filed a whistle-blower lawsuit, alleging the agency had covered up the 2010 death of an inmate at Franklin Correctional Institution.

Randall Jordan-Aparo, 27, died after he was repeatedly gassed by corrections officers.

Jordan-Aparo's death, as investigated initially by the department of corrections, was ruled the result of complications from a rare blood disease. The case was closed.

But in 2013, after several DOC investigators went to the prison to investigate other allegations of wrongdoing, they were told that the circumstances of Jordan-Aparo's death were different from what had been reported. They reopened the case.

According to the lawsuit, the investigators told their boss — Inspector General Jeffery Beasley — that corrections officers and staff had lied to law enforcement, fabricated reports and committed other criminal acts to justify the inmate's death.

Afterward, they claim, Beasley launched bogus internal affairs probes against the investigators

Randall C. Berg Jr., executive director of Miami's Florida Justice Institute law office, said "Crews ought to resign.''

"He is showing no leadership whatsoever,'' Berg said.

Steven Andrews, the Tallahassee lawyer representing the four whistle-blowers, challenged Crews in a letter Thursday. Andrews asked the secretary to live up to his pledge of transparency and accountability.

Specifically, Andrews wants Crews to release the internal affairs investigations that were launched against them.

"The IA cases were in retaliation for discovering the Aparo evidence, and primarily to shut them up,'' Andrews wrote.

Department of Corrections spokesperson Jessica Cary said the internal affairs files are "currently under legal review and anything that is available to be released will be released."

In his visit to Dade Correctional, Crews said he met with various other administrators who work under the warden. His message to them, he said, was the same message he is delivering to the public — and will be bringing to other prisons across the state.

"This type of conduct, this type of behavior, and this type of actions, we are not going to tolerate in this department," he said.

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