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Inmate’s Death Raises Questions About Prison Protections

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(Source: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)

(Source: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – In one of his final letters to his mother, Justin Campos wrote that, although he was serving a life sentence for killing two members of the notorious Latin Kings gang, he had faith that God would protect him.

” … Once you do everything humanly possible and have exhausted yourself, that’s when you pray and give God his room to work. … I feel good and am at peace,” Campos, whose prison nickname was “King Killer,” wrote to his mother Ada on Aug. 29.

About a month later, Ada Campos received a telephone call from a Madison Correctional Institution chaplain telling her that Campos, 28, was dead.

Nearly a year after she buried her son, Ada Campos is still fighting with the Department of Corrections to find out exactly what happened. She accuses prison officials of trying to cover up her son’s murder and failing to protect him although they knew he was the target of a gangland hit.

Campos’s murder is not among nine inmate deaths being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, but critics say the way the Department of Corrections handled his killing illustrates an agency in chaos.

“If inmates are dying because one inmate is killing another inmate, then that’s a failure to protect. It means they don’t have enough corrections officers and they’re not adequately supervising what’s going on in the prisons,” said Florida Justice Institute Executive Director Randall Berg.

The Department of Corrections and Secretary Michael Crews have been under fire for weeks after the Miami Herald reported that Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate at Dade Correctional Institution, died after guards allegedly forced him to shower in scalding hot water as punishment two years ago. Rainey’s death prompted Crews to fire the warden at the prison and clean house at other institutions where inmates have died under questionable circumstances.

The FBI is reportedly scrutinizing Suwannee Correctional Institution, where an inmate-led riot injured five prison guards in October. The April 2 death of inmate Shawn Gooden at the facility is one of nine mysterious inmate deaths being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Only one of those cases involves inmate-on-inmate killing, according to corrections officials.

Four Department of Corrections investigators are suing the agency, saying they’ve been punished for calling attention to a cover-up about an inmate’s death. The whistleblowers claim they started an investigation into allegations of prison guard misconduct at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2013. That investigation revealed that an earlier probe into the 2010 death of an inmate “was false and misleading.”

The department’s handling of Campos’ death is “just one more example of a failure of leadership at the highest level at the Department of Corrections,” Berg said.

“They’re not adequately investigating incidents and wrongdoing in the department and they’re not taking corrective action until it’s brought to the department’s attention by the media. They’re embarrassed and as a result of being embarrassed, they finally do something,” he said.

Prison officials were negligent for not putting Campos into protective custody after he was assaulted by a gang member — who went unpunished — at Jackson Correctional Institution several weeks before Campos died, Berg and Ada Campos said. That attack led to a transfer to the Madison prison.

While no one is accusing prison guards of killing Justin Campos, his mother believes that prison officials are trying to hide what happened to her son, whose body and belongings she said smelled like bleach when she went to the Madison prison to collect them the day after he died.

She said prison officials changed their story about where her son was when he died, have yet to give her any details about his killing and should have had him in protective custody after what appeared to be a gang-related retaliation for the shootings that put her son — who referred to himself as “Man of Iron, my mother’s warrior” — behind bars.

When asked about the efforts of prison officials to ensure Campos’ safety, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jessica Cary provided a copy of a waiver signed by Campos after his assault at the Jackson County facility.

Campos “was transferred to Madison C.I. from Jackson C.I. for his safety as he was involved in an altercation with another inmate at Jackson C.I. on 8/12/13,” Cary said in an e-mail. “Justin Campos was offered protective custody, but waived it in writing.”

But, in the Aug. 29, 2013, letter to his mother, Justin Campos said he asked prison officials to be placed in protective confinement because he realized that the attack on him was in retaliation for the shootings. Campos also wrote that he wanted to be transferred to one of the state’s faith-based prisons where he believed there would be fewer gang members.

Ada Campos, a teacher, has been trying for months to obtain records related to her son’s incarceration and get an explanation about why the state didn’t do more to protect him.

“I think they’re hiding information because they know I’m probing and I’m poking,” Campos said in a telephone interview recently. “I’m just a high school teacher. I don’t have a lot of power. But this mother is not going to go away. If it takes me a lifetime to take care of this, I’m going to do it.”

Officials at the Madison prison first told her that her son died while he was sleeping in his dorm. They later said he had been killed in a common area. Ada Campos said her son was supposed to be teaching elsewhere in the prison at least an hour before the assault on him reportedly began. She also wants to know how the men who attacked her son got into his cell.

“I feel they’re lying. I feel like somebody opened that cell. My son passed in that cell. Then they said it was in the common area where they all hang out. I knew my son’s schedule. Did somebody open the gate for him? Or was it an inside job?” she asked.

As with the other deaths under investigation by FDLE and the Department of Corrections, information regarding Campos’s death is difficult to acquire. The autopsy report is not available because the case is still open, the district Medical Examiner’s office said.

Corrections staff have sent Ada Campos invoices totaling more than $4,000 in response to her request to see her son’s prison file, including the waiver he signed before leaving the Jackson County facility. Cary said that anyone who asks for public records from the department would be charged 15 cents per page for copies and $17 per hour for redactions “regardless if the requestor is a family member of a deceased inmate.”

Incident reports involving inmate deaths are so heavily redacted they provide little if any insight as to what took place.

But what is clear is that Justin Campos, also known as “Jay,” was afraid that he had been targeted by the Latin Kings gang in retaliation for the Lee County shootings that sent him to prison.

In the attack at Jackson Correctional Institution, another inmate slashed Campos in the face with a razor blade in what is considered a gangland method of “marking” an enemy or potential victim. Campos was then transferred to Madison Correctional, where his mother said a correctional officer assured her he would be safe.

Just weeks after his transfer, Campos was stabbed to death. The corrections department completed its own investigation and turned over the findings to the state attorney’s office in Live Oak. Prosecutors are expected to present the case to a grand jury late next month, according to Cary.

Sources close to the case believe that prosecutors are seeking an indictment against two other inmates — both members of the Latin Kings — and may possibly seek the death penalty for Campos’ killing.

Justin Campos was serving a life sentence for killing Carlos Deleon-Ortiz and Juan Miguel Sanchez-Perdomo after an altercation outside a Fort Myers strip club in January, 2011. Campos claimed self-defense but a Lee County judge barred him from using the state’s “stand your ground” self-defense law, and a jury in 2012 sentenced Campos, a Seminole Indian from Immokalee, to life plus 25 years.

Ada Campos said her son had no idea that the two men he shot were members of the Latin Kings, one of the deadliest gangs in the nation and by far the most prominent gang in Florida’s 55 state-run prisons, according to the Department of Corrections’ 2011-2012 Inspector General’s Annual Report. Nearly 10,000 of the state’s 100,000 prisoners are gang members, according to corrections officials.

Since 2009, at least two other inmates were killed in Latin King-related incidents, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigates some inmate deaths but not all.

Corrections officials have the ability to place inmates in protective confinement — which many prisoners reject, because it includes restrictions on certain privileges like the food canteen — whether a prisoner wants it or not, if they deem he or she is at risk, according to the department’s written policy.

Crews, the third head of the department since Gov. Rick Scott took office four years ago, is visiting facilities throughout the state “and assessing operations, meeting with leaders and officers, and taking action on activities that run counter to the department’s mission of maintaining a secure environment for officers and inmates,” Cary said.

“I can assure you that Secretary Crews takes in-custody deaths of inmates very seriously. We welcome and appreciate FDLE’s investigations, the department provides them investigative (assistance) and we respect due process of law. The department swiftly and decisively acts when verifiable information is presented,” she said.

But, like other institutions, the corrections department “is incapable of reforming itself,” said Allison DeFoor, chairman of the Project for Accountable Justice at Florida State University and an advocate for prison reform.

“You’ve got 100,000 provenly bad people in close confinement so you’re going to have bad circumstances. The larger question is systemic. The world has turned towards transparency, accountability and measurable performance. And the justice system broadly and the corrections system specifically is heading the other way,” DeFoor said. “The mind that created the problem will not create the solution. That’s really fundamental. Everybody knows that.”

This report is by Dara Kam with The News Service of Florida.

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