Fifteen years after the brutal death of inmate Frank Valdes at the hands of guards, Florida's prison system apparently still has inmates dying after altercations with staff. A federal whistle-blower lawsuit filed in Tallahassee this week casts a whole new light on such violence behind bars — and the real possibility that at least in some cases the Department of Corrections is more interested in covering it up than rooting it out. Corrections Secretary Michael Crews last month announced new protocols for investigating serious inmate injuries and unattended deaths. But he also should commit to re-examine past cases where scrutiny clearly went wanting and the truth is unknown.
On Wednesday came reports of a third inmate who died in recent years after altercations with corrections officers. Unlike other cases detailed in recent months by the Miami Herald, officers involved in the 2012 altercation with inmate Frank Smith, 44, at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford have been placed on paid leave pending the outcome of an investigation that now stands at 21 months. But that wasn't the case in the horrific and still unaccounted-for 2012 death of Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate at Dade Correctional Institute in Homestead. Rainey, 50, died after being left in a scalding shower by guards for almost two hours, burning him so badly that chunks of skin were left behind in the shower.
DOC's inspector general Jeffrey Beasley closed the initial investigation after two weeks, only to reopen it last month after the Herald's reports. The publicity also prompted Crews to announce that investigations into serious inmate injuries and unattended deaths will be handled by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But the new policy still doesn't account for potential past crimes that need investigating, including those detailed in a new federal whistle-blower suit.
The suit's plaintiffs, four corrections department investigators, allege that in recent months they have been retaliated against for speaking out about criminal activity they have discovered behind bars. Of particular note is that three plaintiffs allege the department failed in 2010 to properly investigate the death of Randall Jordan-Aparo, 27, at Franklin Correctional Institute in Carrabelle — and then tried to keep them from looking into the incident when they stumbled upon it amid other inquiries at Franklin last year.
Veteran DOC investigator Aubrey P. Land, in a transcript attached to the suit, claimed Jordan-Aparo was placed in solitary confinement after begging to be sent to the hospital for a worsening medical condition only to die after being repeatedly gassed by corrections officers. Yet the followup investigation made no mention of the use of chemical agents or a pre-existing medical condition, Land said.
"There is documented proof that this kid is sick. And they gas him, and they gas him, and they gas him. I've done this for 30 years. My skin doesn't crawl very often. They killed that damn kid," Land said.
The cascade of revelations prompted Jim McDonough, the retired Army colonel who led the prison system under Gov. Jeb Bush, to tell the Herald this week, "I am revolted by what I am hearing, just as I am by what I am not hearing … the lack of a sense of outrage from departmental officials, or for that matter, other officials."
Prison work by its nature is difficult and dangerous, and the revolving leadership of Florida's prison system certainly has not helped to create a sense of shared responsibility in recent years. But none of that obviates the state's responsibility to safely house inmates and investigate thoroughly when they are harmed. The state prison system appears to lack accountability and openness, and it must be held to account.