TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — The Department of Corrections (DOC) launched a database Tuesday meant to bring some light to inmate deaths.
The move comes as a response to furor sparked by Miami Herald reports earlier this year 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.
The inmate mortality website site is ripe with statistics about how many deaths have occurred behind bars — 213 out of an inmate population of more than 100,000 so far this year — since 2000. Viewers can see data specific to each of the state’s prisons, and the information is broken down by gender and cause, including cancer, HIV and homicide. The site also reflects the 87 “pending” investigations into inmate deaths Crews recently referred to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where the corrections chief spent his career prior to being appointed secretary by Gov. Rick Scott nearly two years ago.
Crews acknowledged that, because of public-records exemptions, much of the information in the online reports is blacked out. Releasing even the scant information available could shine a more unwelcome spotlight on his beleaguered agency, Crews conceded.
But, he said, “If we were trying to cover anything up or to hide anything, I wouldn’t be comfortable putting anything up there at all. When you see some of these investigations, and we’ve said this all along … it’s going to generate questions.”
In just a few months after Rainey’s death, crews fired the warden at the prison, cleaned house at other institutions where inmates have died under questionable circumstances, instituted new protocols for punishing wayward corrections workers and launched the website.
“At least from a leadership standpoint, and my own personal standpoint, we’ve got nothing to hide,” Crews told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “People die in our society every day …. and that also happens in our institutions. This is a way for us to gain the public trust and public confidence in our agency. We are about doing the right thing. We’re not going to let the actions of a few fail to conform to the way we want to do business dictate the direction our department is going to go.”
Crews and his agency are under fire from the public and from former workers. 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 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.
On Tuesday, the same day the mortality website launched, Disability Rights Florida sued Crews and Wexford Health Systems, a private vendor that provides health care services to prisons in the southern portion of the state, alleging that torture and abuse of prisoners, including Rainey, had been ignored for years.
Crews did not address the lawsuits, but insisted that “99.5 percent” of the department’s 24,000 workers do the right thing, and he’s intent on sending the message to others about his expectations.
“We’re not going to tolerate that [expletive]. That’s the bottom line. We’re through with that. It doesn’t matter who you are or how long you’ve been here or what rank you are or how many family members you’ve got. Right is right, and wrong is wrong,” he said.
Crews’s mission to clean up his agency has led him on a trek to visit prisons throughout the state.
“What has happened to us … is it embarrassing? Absolutely. But the distinction I ask you to make is that while those people, they reflect on our 24,000 members, but they don’t represent who we are,” Crews said after leaving Lawtey Correctional Institution Tuesday afternoon.
The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.
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