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Silence hinders prison inquiries

The investigation of inmate Frank Valdes' death is not the first time authorities have encountered "stone-walling."

Since death row inmate Frank Valdes died after a violent confrontation with Florida State Prison guards, investigators have met with a wall of silence: Guards who were put on paid leave pending an investigation into the incident aren't talking.

But that is nothing new, and it isn't limited to Florida State Prison.

The state attorney's office investigating Valdes' death ran into the same situation at the North Florida Reception Center in Lake Butler, a clearinghouse prison where inmates are taken before receiving a permanent prison assignment.

An inmate complained about abuse, and an investigator for the Department of Corrections' Inspector General's Office took it seriously enough to turn to the state attorney for help in prosecuting it.

But in an April 1998 letter obtained by the Times, the state attorney's chief investigator told the inspector there was nothing he _ or anyone else in the state _ could do about abuse allegations. He suggested the FBI and the U.S. attorney.

"All of the officers interviewed had a common attitude of "saw nothing, did nothing, heard nothing and know nothing,' " wrote Wiley Clark, who until last year was the chief investigator for State Attorney Rod Smith in the 8th Judicial Circuit. "I do not believe the Inspector General's Office will ever be successful in providing evidence in one of these cases with the attitude of the rank and file as it exists today."

Clark's letter suggests that concerns about abuse and the state's inability to investigate it go back at least a year and were not limited to the prison where Valdes died.

Clark was even less hopeful about the role the state attorney can play in rural areas where prisons are a major employer like Lake Butler and Starke, home to Florida State Prison. The problem, he wrote, wasn't just limited to the "stone-walling" by the guards.

"Even if a case could be developed to the extent that criminal charges could be filed by this office in good faith, the trial would still take place in the county where the crime is alleged to have occurred," Clark wrote. "We both know that the chance of a guilty verdict being obtained under this circumstance is extremely unlikely and would make the situation worse than it is now."

And he said there was little that prison wardens could do about curbing abuse, either.

"I do not believe . . . that the administration of an institution can solve this problem without wholesale transfer of first and second level supervisors," Clark wrote. "I doubt this is possible from a practical standpoint."

Clark suggested that the federal government is better equipped to prosecute such cases because U.S. attorneys can pick from a different pool of jurors and can charge guards with civil rights violations as well as criminal violations.

Although his office declined to pursue the case, Clark wrote that there would be dire consequences if nothing was done.

"Of the utmost concern to me is the extreme likelihood that if this conduct and attitude continues on the part of certain correctional officers, one or more of the inmates will eventually retaliate and severely injure an officer or even kill one," Clark wrote.

Clark's prediction was slightly off: Today, Valdes is dead and guards are under investigation. The case has raised questions about Florida's system for investigating abuse and prompted some reform.

Clark's letter, however, raises questions about State Attorney Rod Smith's ability to prosecute the guards if federal and state law enforcement officials conclude that Valdes was killed by his keepers.

Clark could not be reached for comment, but Smith readily acknowledges his office's unwillingness to become involved in abuse cases in the past: "We're not in that business," he said. "And I'm not going to prosecute . . . on inmates' testimony alone."

Not only does his office lack the resources, he said, but also a bad result could be devastating.

Smith, who from 1980 to 1990 did work for the union that represents correctional officers and even defended some guards accused of abuse, said he routinely toured prisons to warn guards about using excessive force on inmates.

"We'd tell them this is not worth throwing your career away," Smith recalled. "But the worst thing we can do when we are trying to change behavior is go in and lose a case and reinforce that there's no culpability."

But Smith said the Valdes case is different.

"My role in this case won't be to kick it off to the feds to prosecute," he said. "If it's difficult, we're just going to have to get better at it."