Prison death renews scrutiny on warden demoted after guard's slaying

Published June 16 2014
Updated June 16 2014

Six years ago on June 25, Donna Fitzgerald, a 50-year-old corrections officer at Daytona Beach's Tomoka Correctional Institution, was stabbed more than a dozen times with a piece of sheet metal.

She was found dead on the floor of a prison paint room.

A subsequent investigation by Florida's Department of Corrections' inspector general blamed the warden, Jerry Cummings, and his top commanders for critical security breaches, gross neglect of duty and ineptitude. Those errors, the probe said, ultimately permitted an inmate to ambush and murder Fitzgerald, who was working late at night — alone — supervising a crew of rapists and violent offenders, some of them lifers, who had access to sharp tools as part of a prison work program.

Despite the blistering criticism and a demotion, Cummings' career didn't suffer much. He and his top staffers were reassigned and within a few years he was back on top as warden at Dade Correctional Institution south of Homestead.

Cummings, a career corrections administrator, was at the helm of the institution on June 23, 2012, when mentally ill prisoner Darren Rainey was locked in a shower/decontamination unit, allegedly as punishment for not cleaning up feces in his cell. Rainey, 50, was left in the small stall for almost two hours, pleading for help as the guards turned the hot water on full blast and walked away. When Rainey was found, collapsed, and dead, his skin was separating from his body.

No one has been disciplined in connection with Rainey's death, and, in fact, two of the corrections officers on duty that night were promoted after the incident. Police treated it as an unexplained death in custody and only recently — after the Miami Herald visited the prison and obtained public records — began interviewing witnesses.

Cummings and several top staffers was suspended for a week last month, but it had nothing to do with Rainey. An inspection found the kitchen facilities overrun with rats and roaches.

Cummings declined to be interviewed, but in a written statement said the prison system has no tolerance for inmate abuse and "a strong track record of taking immediate, decisive action'' when law enforcement provides them with evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Rainey's is not the only recent death to raise eyebrows, trigger investigations and cast a harsh spotlight on the management of the nation's third-largest prison system. Currently, there are seven Florida prison deaths being probed by law enforcement, including two deaths this year at Charlotte Correctional Institution in Punta Gorda.

This is true even though it is the Florida Department of Corrections that decides whether a criminal investigation should be conducted.

Joseph McDonough, a former secretary of the Department of Corrections who was brought in during a previous period of upheaval, says he is disturbed by what he is observing.

"Here, you see the death of a scalded inmate and vicious beatings of others with all sorts of suspicious circumstances," he said. "These are the same signs I noticed when I walked in the door in 2006 — and it should be sending off alarm signals.''

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Mike Crews, secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, declined to be interviewed for this story. His appointment, in 2012, made him the sixth top administrator in the department in six years. Before becoming secretary, Crews was second in command at the agency.

Through the changes in leadership, a constant has been the issue of inmate abuse — and in-custody deaths. It has grabbed the attention of prison activists, civil rights advocates and human rights activists. Florida's prisons have also caught the eye of the Justice Department.

The turmoil began in 2006, when the feds arrested then-DOC Secretary James Crosby and his deputy, Allen Clark, on corruption charges.

Crosby had been a politically connected rising star — despite criticism surrounding his leadership. He was the warden at Florida State Prison in 1999 when death row inmate Frank Valdes was stomped to death by guards. The officers took turns wildly beating Valdes, stomping on him so fiercely that many of his organs and bones were crushed.

Though Crosby was on vacation at the time of the attack, critics maintain that he was part of Florida's "good ol' boy'' culture that turned a blind eye to corruption and abuse and rewarded and promoted known "goon squads'' that had been beating inmates at the prison.

"When the head of an agency is diseased with corruption, it spreads like wildfire,'' said McDonough, who replaced Crosby and was tasked with cleaning up the agency in 2006.

McDonough said he wasn't prepared for how deep the wrongdoing went in the state's prison system. Virtually every part of the agency was tainted in some form, he said.

Dozens of wardens, deputy wardens, regional supervisors, administrators and corrections officers were either fired or forced to resign under McDonough's leadership, which lasted just two years.

"There are some very ominous signs that there are problems that have returned to the system that I hoped we had gotten rid of,'' said McDonough, who is now retired.

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On Friday, DOC's inspector general, Jeffrey Beasley, announced he would reopen the probe into Rainey's death. However, the department said the investigation would focus on the operation of the agency's showers — not whether any of its officers had committed possible criminal wrongdoing.

Miami-Dade police began questioning possible witnesses in the 2-year-old case last month. The autopsy was completed 18 months ago, but has not been released because Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma said he needs the police to finish their inquiry in order to "interpret'' his findings.

Florida Rep. Katie Edwards, a Broward Democrat, said she has serious concerns about how Rainey's case is being handled — and how law enforcement and the DOC handle inmate abuse and deaths throughout the state.

"We need to get a grasp on why they are dying. I recognize this isn't a country club, but given our sordid history, I want to make sure we aren't reverting to the past.''

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