TALLAHASSEE — Michael Crews, the embattled secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, on Monday announced he would step down, following months of scrutiny involving abusive corrections officers, suspicious inmate deaths and a poor record of inmate healthcare delivered by private contractors.
Crews' exit had been rumored for weeks. It comes amid allegations of widespread agency corruption and the failure of Crews' top law enforcement officer, Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing in the prison system.
In an interview with the Times/Herald, Crews said: "I have not resigned. I am retiring from state government."
Department spokesman McKinley Lewis said Crews' deputy, Tim Cannon, would replace him on an interim basis.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he was saddened by the departure, and cited Crews' decisive action last year to shut down a work release center in Largo after two inmates had escaped, with one committing rape and the other killing two people.
"I have never seen anyone in government move as quickly and decisively as he did on that issue," Latvala said. "Mike Crews did a wonderful job. But it's a horrible job and it's a tough department."
Crews, the sixth prisons chief in the past eight years, presided over the state's largest agency, with 101,000 inmates, 56 prisons and 21,000 employees.
Following a series of stories about abusive corrections officers and inmate deaths, Crews announced in August the firings of more than two dozen guards, as well as prison reforms designed to address deficiencies in the way inmates, especially those with mental illnesses, are treated.
Even so, a recent study by a criminal justice think-tank concluded the reforms were not radical enough to change a culture that has led to dangerous, brutal and even deadly, prisons.
"Both the firings and recommendations remain reactive steps, internally limited, and still do not address systemic weaknesses and failings of accountability,'' said the report by the Project on Accountable Justice at Florida State University.
This failure, the group said, has resulted in more victims, higher taxpayer costs and more repeat offenders.
The group's chairman, however, said Crews' departure is not going to change the culture of an agency that has grown increasingly corrupt because it has operated without independent oversight for decades.
"The last several secretaries have not been the problem,'' said Allison DeFoor, chairman of FSU's justice project. "Again, we're still dancing around the elephant in the room — the problem is not at the secretary level. It's structural.''
The group's research detailed five recommendations, including stability in leadership and creating an independent committee that would replace the department's inspector general's office, which has been accused of ignoring or covering up inmate abuse, corruption and wrongdoing on the part of staff and corrections officers.
Crews, 53, spent most of his career with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He is the first department chief to step down following Gov. Rick Scott's re-election.
Crews faced intense pressure starting in May, after the Miami Herald began an investigation into inmate deaths, starting with a 50-year-old prisoner, Darren Rainey, who had died after being forced to endure almost two hours in a scalding shower at Dade Correctional Institution. Though Rainey, who suffered from mental illness, died in 2012, the case was largely ignored by DOC's inspector general and by Miami-Dade police, who had let it languish without questioning witnesses claiming to have evidence that he was killed by corrections officers who had been using the shower to torture sick prisoners.
The Herald then investigated the death of Randall Jordan-Aparo, a 27-year-old career thief who died in 2010 after he was repeatedly gassed at Franklin Correctional Institution in Florida's Panhandle. Four investigators with FDOC's inspector general's office subsequently filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Beasley and Scott's chief inspector general, Linda Miguel, claiming that the prison's corrections officers and the IG investigator who initially investigated the case, had covered up his death. Beasley, they also claimed, tried to thwart their effort to expose and punish the officers.
Crews subsequently fired Dade Correctional's warden, Jerry Cummings, as well as two officers allegedly involved in Jordan-Aparo's death and about 30 other corrections officers who had been on paid leave, sometimes for years, as a result of allegations of excessive force against inmates across the state.
As the media reports continued, Crews announced other reforms aimed at cleaning up the agency, pledging to make his workers more accountable and the agency more transparent. He launched an inmate mortality database, listing all prison deaths on the department's website and assigned more than 100 open inmate death investigations to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
He insisted, however, that allegations of abuse were the result of "a few bad apples'' in the agency and were not as systemic as critics claim.
"I thought Mike Crews tried to do a wonderful job, and I think he was well qualified. He was a very honorable man," said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, who chaired the Senate Criminal Justice Committee for the past two years and has more prisons in his Panhandle district than any other legislator.
"Part of the reason it's so hard to get somebody to stay in that position is the fact that there's so many pressures all the way around," Evers said.
Evers said rank-and-file correctional officers have not had an across-the-board pay raise in seven years, which leads to severe turnover in front-line prison guard positions. He said Crews agreed with him that a pay raise is long overdue, despite the prison system's chronic deficits.
Evers said Gov. Scott should promote from within in seeking a permanent replacement for Crews. "I would like to see someone who came up through the rank and file. That way they understand what the officers have to go through on a daily basis," Evers said.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former prosecutor who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee overseeing prisons, said Scott should hire an outsider as the new secretary.
"I think there's a lot of work still to be done to change the culture of that department," Bradley said, "and the only way to effectively change the culture is to bring in someone who has not grown up in the culture."
Bradley said Crews' departure comes as no surprise to him, and that it compounds one of the agency's biggest problems: rampant turnover at the top.
"Secretary Crews didn't have enough time to make the type of lasting impact that I think is needed," Bradley said. "It's going to take sustained, consistent leadership to make real change there."
Scott appointed Crews in 2012 to replace Ken Tucker who, like Crews, had a long career with the Department of Law Enforcement. Crews, who has a 30-year career in state government, was the third DOC secretary under Scott. His first secretary, Ed Buss, was forced out after he questioned Scott's effort to privatize prisons. That effort failed in the Legislature.
Crews said he will take a position as vice president in charge of a Tallahassee-based risk management institute that provides expertise to sheriffs who are self-insured, through the Florida Sheriffs Association.