The father of a prison inmate who authorities say was pummeled to death by corrections officers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Florida prison system Monday.
The lawsuit came on the eve of the second anniversary of Frank Valdes' death at Florida State Prison, where he was on death row for murdering a prison officer. The lawsuit alleges that officers at the Starke prison beat Valdes to death after he complained about the abuse of other inmates on his high-security wing and began trying to alert the media.
Prison officials, who declined to comment on the suit filed in Jacksonville, have repeatedly called the Valdes death an isolated incident. The lawsuit contends it was anything but.
"From 1996 through 1999, these beatings have occurred with such frequency and regularity that the conduct has become routine," it states.
The suit says that two days before Valdes' death, prison officials ignored an emergency grievance from another inmate on Valdes' wing who alleged that rampant beatings were occurring and that someone needs "to get up here before we are killed."
Stuart attorney Guy Rubin, who held a news conference announcing the lawsuit in Gainesville, said jurors considering the case won't have to feel sympathy for a career criminal like Valdes, but that evidence of how common abuse is behind bars should persuade them that prison officials need a strong message to start doing something about it. He said damages could be in the "millions."
"What we're asking for," Rubin said, "is an acknowledgement that the system is broken and a verdict that tells the state of Florida that you can't treat prisoners like animals. That's exactly what happened. Frank Valdes was slaughtered."
An autopsy found that Valdes had 22 ribs broken, a boot mark on his torso, fractures of his jaw, nose and collarbone, and other injuries.
His death followed a violent altercation with officers who forcibly removed him from his confinement cell on the morning of July 17, 1999. Records show the officers took a not-quite-unconscious Valdes to the prison infirmary where officials reported no serious injuries. Later that afternoon, officers say, they saw Valdes throw himself onto the floor of his cell repeatedly. He died that afternoon.
Eight prison officers are charged with crimes relating to Valdes' death. Seven are charged with second-degree murder. A trial could start as early as next month.
Among those named in the lawsuit are Gov. Jeb Bush, Corrections Secretary Michael Moore, Florida State Prison Warden James Crosby, and various other officers, medical personnel and administrators.
Mario Valdes, Frank's father, said in a conference call from Miami that he hopes for reforms in the Florida prison system and is haunted by the autopsy photos.
"The hardest thing I had to go through was when I received the pictures of the condition of my son . . . when he died," Valdes said. "It was very gruesome for me.
"Justice would be for the guards to be punished severely, and for the state . . . to pay heavy, heavy money," said Valdes, a native Cuban.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.