Brutality in Florida State Prisons
California, Times-Union, Wed, 28 Jul 1999
The ongoing investigation of possible brutality against inmates at Florida State Prison in Starke isn't the 1st time the state has investigated alleged abuses at the prison.
Nineteen years ago, a legislative committee headed by an outspoken Jacksonville lawmaker tried to uncover and correct the abuse of inmates, including beatings, sexual assaults and homicide.
"The circumstances now are mild compared to what they were before," said Arnett Girardeau, a Jacksonville dentist who spent 16 years as a member of the state House and Senate. "They had men then who hanged themselves while sitting down, and we all knew that was totally impossible."
Girardeau said yesterday the legislature must get involved in the inquiry into conditions at Florida State Prison if there is any hope of significant changes at the facility.
"Legislative oversight committees of both houses should get involved in this and aggressively pursue these issues," said Girardeau, a Democrat who once spent a night in jail to protect an inmate who gave him information. "If things are not going as they should, the legislature is the only branch of government that can forcibly change directions because it controls the finances."
The investigation headed by Girardeau, then chairman of the House Committee on Corrections, Parole and Probation, began in similar fashion to the current inquiry now under way at the prison - with the beating death of an inmate.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and U.S. Justice Department began inquiries last week into the July 17 killing of death row inmate Frank Valdes.
One Northeast Florida lawmaker said it's too soon for the legislature to form any oversight committees.
"It's much too early," said Rep. George Crady, D-Yulee, who sits on the House Corrections Committee. "It's much better to wait and see what transpires through this investigation."
But state Sen. Walter Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he has written to the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee asking that the committee conduct an investigation to see if any policy changes are needed in the prison system.
"The problem we've got with the Department of Corrections is that we never seem to get valid information," said Campbell, a committee member. "I haven't seen anything yet."
C.J. Drake, a spokesman for the corrections department, said the agency has tried to fulfill all requests for information regarding the ongoing investigation but is hampered because it is a criminal investigation.
Campbell added that it may be unwise for the legislature to quickly form an oversight committee that would only amount to another level of bureaucracy.
"The actual functioning of that department lies with the governor, and I don't think the legislature should go in and tell the governor what he should or should not do," he said.
Girardeau said he realizes it's unpopular for lawmakers to stand up for the rights of inmates. But he said it is an important element of any attempt to institute reforms in a prison system.
"A lot of people think these people in prison get what they deserve," said Girardeau, 70. "But this must be stopped now, because what's happening now was exactly like what was happening then."
In 1980, the inmate who spurred the investigation by Girardeau's committee was Vertis Graham, who died in the prison from a blow to the head.
Inmate Johnny Lee Fort sent a scribbled note to Girardeau informing the lawmaker he killed Graham with the blessing of prison guards, who he said used him as a henchman to keep other inmates in line.
The claims by Fort led to a report on the CBS-TV show 60 Minutes and a committee report that called for numerous changes in the Florida prison system. An investigation by prison officials ended with the indictment of another inmate in the slaying, but a jury acquitted him.
The committee investigation also uncovered beatings and sexual assaults and led to firings and suspensions of guards. One of the guards fired, Donald Sprow, said yesterday he later got his job back at Florida State Prison.
One proposal by Girardeau's committee called for the assignment of an agency to conduct independent investigations into allegations of violence against inmates. The FDLE is now conducting such an investigation into the death of Valdes.
Meanwhile, a Gainesville organization that represents death row inmates said yesterday it has received reports from several inmates which show the beating of inmate Valdes wasn't an isolated incident on the X-wing, used to house inmates with discipline problems.
The agency said its representatives recently interviewed Xwing inmate Willie Mathews, who had surgery last week to repair a jaw he said was broken by a correctional officer at Florida State Prison.
"They beat everybody on Xwing," the agency quoted Mathes as saying.
"They say: 'The Courts sent you here . . . for us to beat you.'"
Mathews later told the agency he heard guards beating Valdes the day Valdes died of "multiple blunt trauma," according to the state medical examiner. Mathews told the agency he could hear guards cleaning up Valdes' cell after the beating.
The body of slain death row inmate Frank Valdes is scheduled to be autopsied today by an independent medical examiner as a prelude to a lawsuit his family intends to file against the state.
The autopsy would be the 2nd performed on Valdes, who died July 17 after a violent struggle with guards in his cell on Florida State Prison's tough X-Wing.
The unit, which houses the prison's most disruptive inmates, is drawing intense scrutiny from investigators.
Attention was heightened on Tuesday after the release of accounts by 3 inmates who said they were beaten on X-Wing just days before Valdes died.
"We are appalled by the abuses that we have been hearing about," said Arlene Huszar, acting director of the Florida Institutional Legal Services of Gainesville, which interviewed the prisoners.
"Anyone who doubts the word of the inmates just needs to see their injuries to know they are not making this up," she said. "They are terrified of ending up beaten to death like Frank Valdes."
Valdes' 1st autopsy, performed by a state coroner, has not been made public and is part of an ongoing murder investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But knowledgeable sources have said the autopsy shows that all of Valdes' ribs were broken, his testicles were swollen and his mouth was bloodied from a violent confrontation with an "extraction team" sent to remove him from his cell.
"It's going to take some time to put our lawsuit together," said Stuart "Skip" Goldenberg, a North Palm Beach attorney representing Valdes' wife, Wanda, of West Palm Beach, and his father, Mario, of Hialeah.
"But we want to make sure that every resource is available to us. That's why we need the new autopsy," he said.
Attorneys for the suspended guards say the team acted "by the book." According to incident reports by the officers, Valdes was treated by medical personnel and returned to his cell after the struggle. Later, Valdes deliberately fell three times in his cell and suddenly stopped breathing, the officers reported. Valdes was on death row for killing a correctional officer in West Palm Beach in 1987.
9 guards were suspended with pay immediately after Valdes' death. 2 more were suspended last week from the facility at Starke for failing to cooperate with state investigators.
Last week, the FBI joined a widening investigation of Florida's prison system amid a rising toll of inmate complaints about abuse by guards -- at Florida State Prison and elsewhere in the state's 65,000-inmate system.
On Tuesday, the Gainesville legal services organization released statements from inmates Willie Mathews, 26, Sirlathian Cross, 21, and Michael Lambrix, 39, who said they had been beaten and observed other inmates getting roughed up on X-Wing in recent weeks.
Mathews, who is doing time for aggravated assault, said he suffered a broken jaw and had to be hospitalized after a July 10 beating on X-Wing.
Mathews also said he heard Valdes getting a severe beating the day he died. During the beating, Mathews said the guards "kept saying something about, 'Where's the knife? Where's the knife? You like killing police?'"
Mathews said he heard "a lot of bumping going on. Then it got real quiet -- real still."
Mathews also said correctional officers cleaned Valdes' cell after the beating. But Gil Schaffnit, an attorney for the suspended correctional officers, dismissed the claim that guards sought to cover up the confrontation.
Schaffnit said he was called to Florida State Prison shortly after the incident and saw what appeared to be blood stains on the floor of Valdes' cell marked by FDLE crime-scene tape and pieces of a bloody mattress apparently removed by investigators as evidence.
(source: Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel)
Prisoner's letter to federal judge describes brutal conditions
By DAVID COX, Tallahassee Bureau, July 30, 1999
TALLAHASSEE -- Frank Valdes' accomplice in the murder of a state prison guard wrote a letter to a federal judge on the day Valdes died in which he accused corrections officers of severely beating inmates on Florida State
Prison's X-wing for weeks.
"This prison is out of control, and they are going to kill someone (if Frank is not already dead)," William Van Poyck wrote to U.S. District Judge Harvey E. Schlesinger in Jacksonville after a confrontation between Valdes and prison guards on July 17. The Florida Department of Corrections released Van Poyck's letter on Friday.
Van Poyck told Schlesinger he saw officers drag Valdes' bloodied body from his cell to the prison's clinic. He described Valdes as "unconscious, his eyes rolled back -- and teeth kicked out."
An attorney for Valdes' family said an independent autopsy performed this week showed that Valdes died of a severe beating and suffered massive injuries and broken bones after the melee with guards in his cell.
Law enforcement sources said he suffered numerous injuries, including broken ribs, swollen testicles and multiple abrasions.
Department of Corrections spokesman C.J. Drake doubted Van Poyck's account of the incident, saying the inmate was in a cell at the time that would have prevented him from seeing Valdes' body being taken to the clinic.
"If he was where I think he was on X-wing, I'm very skeptical how he is able to make those statements," Drake said.
Van Poyck's letter was forwarded to Gov. Jeb Bush and no doubt will become part of the official investigation.
"For the past two-plus weeks these officers have been beating a group of inmates who came here from Hamilton Correctional Institute, every day, every shift (this, too, is happening on X-wing)," Van Poyck wrote. "They are not feeding these inmates, not showering them and beating them every day."
The FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement are conducting the criminal investigation into Valdes' death.
Nine officers have been suspended with pay over allegations they took part in the Valdes beating. Two other officers also were suspended for not cooperating with authorities in the investigation.
Valdes and Van Poyck were on death row for murdering a corrections officer in 1988 during a botched escape attempt. The X-wing is where the prisoners with the worst disciplinary problems are kept at Florida State Prison in
A prisoners' rights advocate believes inmates were regularly beaten by corrections officers on X-wing and in other areas of Florida State Prison.
Arlene Huszar, acting executive director at Florida Institutional Legal Services in Gainesville, said she was contacted by Phyllis Nealon of Orlando on Friday, who said her son, Brian, was beaten by guards at Starke. He was not on X-wing at the time.
Huszar said Nealon alleges he was beaten by one of the guards who took part in the Valdes incident.
"What I find is it all fits with the facts that are being circulated now. Maybe the horror of it is it could be so widespread," Huszar said.
An investigator for Legal Services was allowed into the North Florida
Reception Center at Lake Butler to interview several inmates on Friday who may have information regarding inmate beatings at Florida State Prison.
Huszar said her investigator had not returned from the prison as of late
Friday, and she could not say what information was learned.
Also on Friday, the Florida Department of Corrections reassigned two assistant wardens at Florida State Prison to other facilities and two administrators from other institutions were selected to fill their places.
State prisons spokesman Drake said the reshuffling is part of a reorganization of management in the state prison system, but admitted the moves likely were quickened because of the Valdes incident.
He could not say if the two assistant wardens assigned to Florida State Prison -- Wendel Whitehurst and George Sapp -- will bring in a philosophical change in the institution's administration. But neither of the men transferred out of the prison are subjects of the criminal investigation, he said.
"I think the best way to characterize what we're trying to achieve here is to give a fresh perspective on some of the management issues (at Starke)," Drake said.
The Associated Press reported that the warden of Florida State Prison has told his staff to "quit acting like a bunch of criminals" and cooperate fully in the Valdes investigation.
"We're going to cooperate. We want people to look at us," prison Warden James Crosby Jr. said. "We want that independent look because right now we have a cloud over us. And honestly, I think that's the only thing that can
penetrate that cloud."
Crosby said some of his staffers at first were unwilling to cooperate with investigators. So he called an emergency meeting of prison shift captains and lieutenants last Saturday and told them to cooperate.
Officials for the union that represents correctional officers blamed state investigators for having "recklessly jeopardized the integrity of the investigation."
Jim Baiardi, president of the corrections officer chapter for the Florida Police Benevolent Association, accused FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore and Gainesville State Attorney Rod Smith of declaring "our officers guilty before any real investigation of the facts has occurred."
Baiardi and PBA president Ernie George faulted Moore from calling Valdes' death a "homicide" and for Smith saying the guard's story was "implausible, if not preposterous."
FDLE spokeswoman Liz Hirst said: "We certainly stand by what we believe at this point, and we're going to conduct our homicide investigation as we see fit."