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Prison system failure

With allegations of inmate abuse going largely uninvestigated, state corrections officials need to do more to ensure humane conditions of confinement.

How do you get at the truth? That's the question that should concern corrections officials following the death of Frank Valdes, apparently at the hands of guards. But uncovering what happened to Valdes is only scratching the surface of what some inmates claim is a culture of prisoner abuse and coverup.

There have been allegations of frequent beatings of prisoners by guards at Florida State Prison, especially at the X Wing and B Wing units where inmates with disciplinary problems are housed. Floridians need to know the truth about these allegations, but according to a detailed report by St. Petersburg Times writers Jo Becker and Sydney Freedberg, the system in place to investigate and respond to abuse charges rarely does its job.

Dozens of complaints by inmates that they were assaulted by guards have received little or no followup. Some inmates claim they were beaten after being handcuffed. Others claim they were attacked as an initiation rite after being transferred from another prison facility. Even where inmates sustained injuries inconsistent with accounts given by guards, their complaints have been dismissed as unsubstantiated. At every level of review within the Department of Corrections, there has been system failure.

Florida State Prison Warden James Crosby says he often didn't enlist outside investigators to look into abuse allegation because a policy prevented him from doing so unless there was "reason to suspect that abuse took place." That policy has been changed since Valdes' death. Now all abuse allegations will go to the inspector general for review.

Yet, even when complaints reach the inspector general, little results from them. In the 13 months prior to July 30, 96 abuse allegations were sent to the inspector general's office. Of those only 13 were investigated and, so far, not a single inmate complaint has been sustained.

David Skrtich, a 53-year-old rapist, was sent to a prison hospital for two months to recover from broken ribs, a perforated chest wall and contusions from shoes on his back and neck. Even though these injuries were at odds with the report by the guards, the inspector general's office initially found Skrtich to blame and tried to prosecute him for attacking the officers. Only after Skrtich obtained a lawyer and wrote a letter to the inspector general did the system take a "second look" and refer his case to the state attorney. Rod Smith, Gainesville-area state attorney, then refused to prosecute the guards due to "insufficient evidence."

Apparently, no one in the system is willing to examine inmate complaints with an impartial and objective eye. Certainly there are malingerers who will make up charges of abuse to get attention or as a vendetta against guards. And there are cases where force must be used to subdue belligerent inmates. But when injuries indicate excessive use of force, more than just a perfunctory review is necessary.

Some changes in prison policy have been made, but more needs to be done. In addition to installing video cameras in X Wing, cameras should also be added to B Wing where the majority of abuse complaints originate. Pictures should be taken of all inmate injuries as part of the medical file and any witnesses to the alleged abuse should be interviewed. Of 142 use-of-force cases in the last 18 months, records show the prison's internal investigator only interviewed one inmate witness.

Those who work within the Department of Corrections have little incentive to give inmate complaints much credence. Weeding out abusive and sadistic guards is an arduous process that can lead to dissension in the ranks. It often means taking the word of a prisoner over that of a group of corrections employees. Yet it is a fundamental responsibility of the prison system to ensure humane conditions of confinement.

This is no time for the governor to be considering a proposal to disband three independent oversight committees that were established by the Legislature as a check on prison operations. DOC Secretary Michael Moore has recommended abolishing these watchdog groups as a cost-savings measure. It's the wrong proposal at the wrong time. If anything, Florida prisons need more independent scrutiny. Abuse complaints should be turned over to an independent review board or outside investigators.

Frank Valdes' violent death brought some needed attention to endemic problems at Florida State Prison. It will take a group of people with no stake in the status quo to clean up the system.

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