A case for cleaning up our prisons
St. Petersburg Times, October 11, 2001

    The beating death of Frank Valdes, a death-row inmate at Florida State Prison, allegedly at the hands of the men who were there to guard him, raises deeply troubling questions about the state's continued tolerance of brutality at its prisons. Why is it that we can't seem to keep sadists and brutes out of state uniforms? And why is the grievance procedure at state correctional facilities, the one internal mechanism an inmate has to alert prison management to problems of excessive force, so unresponsive to legitimate complaints?  As Times staff writer Adam Smith vividly described in a recent story detailing the state's case against eight corrections officers indicted in Valdes' death, Valdes died a much more painful death than he would have faced from lethal injection -- his sentence for the murder of a corrections officer. On Friday, the trial begins for five of those guards who allegedly broke Valdes' body and punched and kicked his face so brutally that he was barely recognizable. According to fellow prisoners on X-wing, Valdes was left in his cell for hours after the final assault, groaning in pain and gasping for breath. Medical personnel were not summoned until Valdes was dead. It's hard to explain away a corpse, but the corrections officers tried, claiming, as a group, that Valdes' injuries were self-inflicted -- that he launched himself from his bunk, head-first. The story unraveled, however, when the medical examiner found Valdes had suffered 22 broken ribs and a smashed face and had a boot print on his torso, not the kinds of injuries that are self-inflicted. Whether these men are ultimately convicted is less important than how the prison system deals with its serious staffing and systems problems.

    The grievance procedure at Florida State Prison is apparently a bad joke. Prison officials had been warned just days before Valdes' murder that rampant abuse was occuring in X-wing -- the prison's building for incorrigible inmates. An inmate wrote in an emergency grievance that prisoner beatings were occuring regularly and pleaded for an investigation "before we are killed." In a response that shows how the officiousness of bureaucrats contributes to an environment that tolerates prison brutality, the inmate's emergency grievance was rejected because his request was found not to be of an emergency nature and was therefore improperly filed. The prison's personnel problems are sadly obvious and should have been so to prison administrators for a long time. Instead, prison officials gave supervisory and training authority to men like Sgt. Montrez Lucas, who apparently thought beating inmates and getting away with it was some kind of sick game. He taught new recruits ways to avoid excessive force charges: When kicking an inmate, be careful not to leave a boot mark, he warned his class. Lie on your reports; just make sure everyone has the same story, he told another. By the way, the medical staff will sometimes help with the coverup, he confided. Lucas proudly showed one class a stack of excessive-force allegations he had beaten over the years. Yet this man was moved along in his career and promoted by James Crosby, warden of Florida State Prison at the time of Valdes' death. Crosby, too, has been promoted since Valdes' death; he's now a regional prison director. What is Florida's Secretary of Corrections Michael Moore thinking? Crosby is at the helm of a prison so full of brutal guards and inept or indifferent grievance administrators that a man died under his watch. And what is the system's response? Promotion.

    Frank Valdes and the men who occupied X-wing are unsympathetic characters. Their crimes put them behind bars and their attitude got them a pass to X-wing. But that doesn't make them fair game for sadists in uniform. This is Moore's problem, but he seems to be too busy looking for another job to pay attention to the system he is charged with administering.

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