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X-Wing camera money unspent

Lawmakers say the cameras could have provided evidence in a recent inmate death at Florida State Prison.

There were no videocameras rolling at Florida State Prison's X-Wing on the day inmate Frank Valdes died.

But there could have been.

In 1998, the Florida Legislature approved nearly $1.8-million to upgrade security at Florida State Prison. In November of 1998, the warden of Florida State Prison wrote a memo asking that some of that money be used to mount 54 tamper-proof cameras on X-Wing and throughout the inside of the prison.

The plan was approved. The money was available. But more than a year after the Legislature acted, the plan to put video cameras throughout the prison hasn't yet made it past the blueprint stage. According to the governor's budget office, the department has yet to spend $893,000 of the $1.8-million set aside to make Florida State Prison more secure.

"We have been replacing cell doors, windows, porcelain sinks with metal ones," said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joellyn Rackleff. "Cameras are part of the design, but we just haven't gotten to that portion yet. It just wasn't top of the list of priorities."

Investigators believe that guards may have beaten Valdes to death, but no one has been charged with a crime. As the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's investigation continues, Corrections Secretary Michael Moore has announced immediate plans to mount cameras on X-Wing, a solitary confinement area of the prison used to discipline unruly inmates. It was there that Valdes died.

Investigators are trying to piece together what happened to Valdes on June 17 by examining medical evidence (investigators say that Valdes' ribs were broken and he had boot marks on his body) and by interviewing guards and inmates rather than viewing irrefutable evidence.

To date, the guards are all telling the same story about Valdes, who was sentenced to death row for killing a guard: That the inmate was removed from his cell, brought to the prison's infirmary and returned to his cell with minor injuries. The guards said he then began climbing his cell bars and throwing himself head first on his steel bed and falling to the floor.

At the very least, a videotape could have told investigators what shape Valdes was in when he was brought back from the infirmary and which guards entered the wing in the hours afterward.

"I think it's a bloody shame that they weren't in place. They would have been incredibly helpful in a circumstance like this," said Rep. Victor Crist, a Republican from Temple Terrace who sits on the budget subcommittee that approves money for the Department of Corrections. "In an agency where security is incredibly important, and at a facility like Florida State Prison where you have the worst criminals. . . . I'm surprised that they didn't move a little more aggressively toward getting that done."

If there are extenuating circumstances, Crist said he would like to know what they are. So would Rep. Alex Villalobos, a Miami Republican who chairs the budget subcommittee on which Crist sits.

"The question is, where did the problem occur?" asked Villalobos. "There was obviously some kind of problem there and it needs to have an explanation that would satisfy both the House and the Senate."

Florida State Prison Warden James Crosby said he doesn't know what caused the delay.

Crosby said his plan won the immediate support of Stan Czerniak, the Department of Corrections assistant secretary in charge of Florida's prisons. He said Czerniak tried to push the project through, but it is the department's facilities management division that decides which projects get done in what order.

"This was a large project and they've got the big picture of what needs there are in the state and how this one project fit into that," Crosby said. "Obviously we felt that it was important because it would have enhanced our ability to know what was going on, and if in fact abuse was going on, people aren't going to do things in front of a camera."

Crosby said that his camera plan has become a high priority since Valdes' death. And he praised Moore, who came to the department in January.

"Things certainly are moving faster since Secretary Moore came to town," Crosby said. "It doesn't seem to take nearly as many meetings as before to get a decision."

The mounted cameras aren't the only tools that might have aided investigators looking into Valdes' death. A previous Florida State Prison warden had a policy that guards had to use hand-held video cameras to tape any incidents where prisoners were forcibly removed from their cells. Crosby has said he did not require that, because there was no similar statewide policy.

Moore, however, announced such a policy after Valdes' death.

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