The national commission hears allegations of beatings and sexual assaults in prisons in Florida and elsewhere.
By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published April 20, 2005
TAMPA - "Goon squads" of guards roam Florida's prisons, beat up inmates and enforce vigilante justice while the top brass turns a blind eye, a former state Department of Corrections warden told a commission on Tuesday.
And many others among 2.2-million incarcerated Americans suffer such abuses as rape, unneeded strip-searches and inadequate medical care, members of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons were told Tuesday in Tampa.
This slew of abuse "doesn't fit with the core values of our democratic society and therefore, should trouble all Americans," said commission co-chairman John J. Gibbons, former chief judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Everyone in society suffers" because of such abuses, said former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, another co-chairman.
This nationwide commission is a privately organized but high-profile group whose members include former FBI director William S. Sessions; Iowa Deparment of Corrections director Gary Maynard; and former Arizona death row inmate Ray Krone, who was exonerated based on DNA evidence. The commission is supported by a consortium of foundations and law firms, and uses the staff of the Vera Institute for Justice, based in New York.
The commission plans four sets of hearings around the country; Tampa's is the first. The two-day hearing continues from 9:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. today at the offices of WEDU-TV, 1300 N Boulevard, Tampa.
Commission members made a point to say corrections officers generally are professional and honest. As the commission studies problems in jails and prisons, "we aim to work closely with corrections professionals every step of the way," Katzenbach said.
But before long Tuesday, commissioners were listening to stories of what has gone seriously wrong in some prisons and jails.
Ron McAndrew, who served as warden at Florida State Prison and two others, said his 23-year career showed him prisoner abuse in the state Department of Corrections "was systematically chronic. The large prisons were plagued with "goon squads' that were well known to, and feared by, staff and prisoners."
McAndrew also said that as he prepared to leave Florida State Prison in 1998, he warned incoming warden James Crosby about a "goon squad" at the prison that was so violent toward inmates he feared "it would only be a matter of time before a prisoner would be killed."
But he says his warnings went unheeded, and inmate Frank Valdes was killed by a squad of officers who entered his cell in July 1999 in a highly publicized case that led to the indictment of several guards on second-degree murder charges. Some of the guards were acquitted at trial and prosecutors dropped charges against the rest.
Since then, Crosby has become DOC secretary.
"Ron McAndrew has been using every avenue available for the last six years to discredit the reputation of Secretary Crosby, and his baseless allegations do not dignify a response from this agency or from the secretary himself," said DOC spokesman Sterling Ivey.
McAndrew, who is 66 and retired from the prison system, was one of several witnesses who testified Tuesday before the committee, which has much wider scope than Florida's prisons. The 21 commissioners say they are on a mission to study and prevent abuses in the nation's prisons.
Even as they noted the professionalism of most in the corrections business, they said abuses in prisons and jails keep recurring. "We don't know why well-meaning officials sometimes do awful things," Katzenbach said.
On Tuesday, the commissioners heard some examples. Among them:
Garrett Cunningham told commissioners he was raped by a guard in a Texas prison and that when he later complained, authorities brushed his complaints aside. The officer later was charged in an alleged assault on another inmate, and agreed to a plea deal that will keep him out of prison. Cunningham, 33, was released from prison about a year ago. He has begun a prisoner support organization.
Jeffrey Scott Hornoff, a former Rhode Island police detective, was convicted of murder and spent six years in prison, but was later cleared after another man confessed to the crime. He said he endured constant humiliation from guards - he refuses to use the term "correctional officers." He said he frequently heard inmates being beaten by guards in solitary confinement. Hornoff, 42, is trying to be reinstated at the police department where he once worked and carries a business card that lists his professional history: "Detective, convicted murderer, exoneree, speaker & advocate."
Judith Haney told commissioners that after she was arrested during the 2003 free trade agreement protests in Miami, she was forced to strip and consent to an invasive search. Female inmates at the time were routinely strip-searched in Miami-Dade, in spite of state law that says such searches can be done only in certain cases, and despite that male inmates arrested on similar charges were not. Haney, 51, of Oakland, Calif., was among those filing a class-action lawsuit over the searches. Miami-Dade County settled the case this week for $4.5-million and a promise to end the practice.
Times Researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8232.