Death Penalty and Death Row in USA

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Living conditions on Death Row

Florida has cheaper and faster methods for executing inmates

Times-Union, July 28, 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.

St. Petersburg Times, July 28, 1999

Several inmates who claim to have information about the fatal beating of death row inmate Frank Valdes have been transferred out of Florida State Prison to avoid concerns they would face retaliation for cooperating with investigators.
Some of the prisoners allege that corrections officers beat them in the 13 days before Valdes' July 17 death. One inmate said he was beaten and threatened with more abuse if he spoke up after Valdes died. Photographs distributed by an outside inmate advocacy group Tuesday show injuries on the faces and heads of 2 prisoners.
Department of Corrections spokesman C.J. Drake said the inmates were moved to other prisons at the request of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in order to guarantee their safety and avoid the suggestion they would face retaliation.
"They were moved to other institutions because we want to make sure that any allegations they made regarding retaliations are not true," said Drake. "That's not an admission on our part that their fears are justified -- we just want to avoid any appearance or potential for that to happen."
Officers at Florida State Prison are under investigation by FDLE and the FBI in the aftermath of Valdes' death at the maximum security prison in Starke. Valdes was on death row for killing a corrections officer in West Palm Beach.
11 prison guards have been suspended with pay, and investigators say they are also looking at numerous other reports of abuse at Florida State Prison.
The inmates who were transferred include four prisoners who are alleged to have been repeatedly beaten by guards over the 13 days leading up to Valdes' death. A 5th prisoner transferred from Starke, Michael Lambrix, claims guards assaulted him after Valdes' death and warned him, "to forget what happened on X Wing or I'd be back over there and be found hanging."
Lambrix said guards were "after" Valdes because he was threatening to report assaults on the four inmates transferred to X Wing in early July. The four had been transferred to Florida State Prison after being accused of assaulting a corrections officer at Hamilton Correctional Institution.
Before Valdes' death, Lambrix and another X-Wing prisoner, William Van Poyck, were writing letters to lawyers and others, reporting repeated assaults on those four prisoners. The Times reported many of their allegations last week.
Staffers from Florida Institutional Legal Services, which provides legal services to prisoners, went to Florida State Prison two days after Valdes' death to check out those allegations. What they saw appalled them, Florida Institutional executive director Arlene Huszar said, and offers more evidence of recurring beatings by guards.
"Anyone who doubts the word of the inmates just needs to see their injuries to know they are not making this up," Huszar said in a statement. "They are terrified of ending up beaten to death like Frank Valdes."
Inmate Willie Mathews, said guards broke his jaw on X-Wing July 10 and repeatedly threatened to beat him up again if he told anyone about it or sought medical attention. Mathews was two cells down from Valdes the day Valdes died after a violent altercation with officers.
"(The guards) kept saying something about, "Where's the knife? Where's the knife? You like killing police? They kept beating him, beating him. A lot of bumping going on. Then it got real quiet, real still," Mathews told Florida Institutional.
Mathews said after they realized Valdes was dead, the officers returned 3 times to scrub the cell with bleach. It was clean by the time investigators arrived.
Another inmate who allowed Florida Institutional to release his name and statements, Sirlathian Cross, said guards beat him 3 or 4 times, handcuffing him, putting a pillowcase over his head and avoiding strikes to his face for fear of leaving bruises.
When Cross complained to a sergeant, he said he was told, "Your fun is over, our fun is just begining."

Cross said he fears for his life: "They stated if we say anything, they will kill us."
Lambrix said he witnessed several assaults on the Hamilton transfers, peering through a gap in his cell door that allowed him to see about 1 1/2 feet off the ground. He said that on July 4, after the guards were through beating up Cross, he watched the guards bring out another inmate who had come from Hamilton.
"I could see under there -- big combat boots holding his head down. A blue plastic bag over his head. There was this stick-looking thing on the ground. I could see the blows and kicks," Lambrix said. The stick looked like a flip-flop attached to a pole and was used to beat inmates, he said.
These inmate transfers are in addition to the relocation of at least four other potential witnesses in the Valdes investigation whose moves had already been disclosed by the Department of Corrections.
Drake, the Corrections spokesman, predicted investigators would thoroughly investigate all of the abuse allegations. While he didn't know the backgrounds of the Hamilton inmates -- Mathews was in prison for aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, Cross for second degree murder, armed burglary and attempted robbery -- he cautioned against trusting Lambrix's version of events.
"People should bear in mind this man is a convicted murderer, and he's on death row for a very good reason. Anything he says or alleges should be taken with a great deal of salt," Drake said, who also downplayed suggestions that prisoners would be in danger for cooperating with investigators.
"The climate at that prison is such that corrections officers are well aware of the situation, and I'm sure nothing untoward would happen to any of the prisoners who are talking to investigators," he said.

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)

Inmates claim bloody cell was cleaned after Valdes' beating

Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, August 3, 1999

After severely beating death row inmate Frank Valdes on the morning of July 17, guards at Florida State Prison threw his unconscious body into the hallway, according to inmates on the prison's X Wing.

Valdes' body hit the floor "like wet meat," said inmate Dallas Price, who was in the cell next to Valdes and said he could see Valdes' body through a crack beneath a steel door.

Later, the guards cleaned Valdes' bloody cell with bleach, then returned Valdes' body to a different cell before calling authorities, inmates said.

These graphic accounts of violence and possible cover-up unfolded in interviews conducted last Friday by an investigator for Florida Institutional Legal Services, a Gainesville-based advocacy group for inmates' rights. The Sun-Sentinel obtained transcripts of the interviews on Tuesday.

The group interviewed five inmates who were on X Wing at the time of Valdes' beating. Four have been transferred to the North Florida Reception Center in Lake Butler because they are potential witnesses in a criminal investigation.

The FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are investigating Valdes' death. Eleven guards, nine of whom were allegedly involved in the melee with Valdes, have been suspended with pay pending the results.

Arlene Huszar, acting executive director for the group, was disturbed by accounts of prison guards cleaning Valdes' cell to get rid of evidence.

"It sounds like {ellipsis} they were out of control or at least very afraid of what might come out," Huszar said on Tuesday. "It seems to me they know they could get in trouble for that, and they did everything they could to eliminate evidence."

Florida Department of Corrections spokesman C.J. Drake said he was "skeptical" of the accuracy of the inmates' stories.

"Assuming (Price's) door is closed, I have a hard time imagining him seeing what he is describing, considering the limited scope of vision he had," Drake said. "It's difficult to comment on these descriptions. Whatever happened to Valdes will be borne out by the investigation."

Price offered the most vivid account of the events of July 17.

He said he overheard a conversation among several guards, with one asking, "Who's going to do it?" and another saying, "Well, I've had a couple volunteers."

He said he heard officers using pepper spray on Valdes and then, about 30 minutes later, heard a group of officers beating Valdes.

"This went on for about 20 minutes," Price said. "All you hear from Frank is 'mmmmm, mmmmm,' he's groaning. I can't duplicate the sound -- it's coming from way down in his soul."

A few officers left the cell coughing, apparently because of the spray, he said.

"They went back in there and I heard them beating on him some more.
Then I heard a dragging noise and something lands. {ellipsis} It sounded like wet meat from a butcher shop. {ellipsis} I'm looking at something in front of my door, laying right in the middle of my door, and I don't realize what I'm looking at. It's red and white. And it took me about 3 seconds to realize, damn, that's Frank's face."

Price said he saw a boot kick Valdes' face, spraying blood, and heard an officer saying, "Frank Valdes, get up, Frank Valdes."

He recalled the voices of several guards, identifying some while admitting he was unsure about others.

"This is too important to make things up," he told the investigator.

After Valdes' body was taken out of his cell, Price said an officer opened all cell doors on the wing and cleaned Valdes' cell with a mop and bucket. Shortly afterward, he said a medical orderly came in with a mop, a bucket and bleach.

"And he went in there and cleaned the cell and he cleaned the hallway in front of my cell," Price said.

Price claimed he was threatened by Florida State Prison correctional officers who tried to stop him from talking with state investigators.

On the day the inmates were transferred from Starke to Lake Butler, Price said one guard told them, "You fellas want to think about who you're testifying against. 'Cause some of them people come from powerful and influential families in (the state Department of Corrections). 6 months after this (expletive) is all over with {ellipsis} you might want to think about what your situation's going to be then."

Michael Barron, another X Wing inmate, told the Legal Services investigator that guards had been beating five inmates who were transferred to Florida State Prison from Hamilton Correctional Institute after being involved in a disturbance there two weeks earlier. 2 guards were injured in that melee.

Barron said he could hear Valdes' skull hitting the floor of the cell.

"They've got this electric shield, you can stab a person with it," he said. "They'll use the edge to poke you and hit you in the ribs; that's probably the way they broke all his ribs. I hear them beating him. By this time, all Frank's saying is 'mmmmm.' I could tell he was sort of unconscious."

Some inmates said guards retaliated against them after they were interviewed by Legal Services.

William Demps, who spoke with investigators on July 29, said a guard threatened him after he returned to his cell on X Wing. Later that night, he said, 5 officers came to his cell and accosted him.

"(One officer) had one of his hands on my throat {ellipsis} and he and the other officers sprayed mace in my face and told me if I don't keep my mouth shut that I am going to wind up dead on X Wing," Demps said.

While conceding that X Wing inmates are among the worst prisoners in the state system, Huszar said the consistency of their stories and the fact that they could not talk among each other to compare stories makes her believe they are telling the truth.

Legal Services recently won a case on behalf of inmates that was submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. That case struck down the state's policy of denying early release to inmates who were sentenced before the state ended its practice of reducing sentences to ease prison crowding.