Make no mistake, I am no softie on crime, nor do I believe that criminals should be coddled or treated with kid gloves. Those who break our laws should be held accountable.
Whether they are serving time for drug possession, drug trafficking, burglary, aggravated assault or murder, they are the wards of the Florida’s Department of Corrections. As such, the state is responsible for their basic human rights, including feeding them and providing their health care.
Having served as chairman of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee for several years, I had the unpleasant task of visiting a dozen or so of our correctional facilities, better known as prisons. If anyone believes inmates enjoy a cozy life, they are grossly mistaken.
Most prisons are not air-conditioned; they are old and in need of maintenance and major repairs. Inmates are expected to work on the prison grounds and have limited visitation and very few privileges. Some inmates are in cells, but the vast majority are in dormitory settings with rows of beds very close together.
Inmates serving time for nonviolent offenses are mixed in with the general population and are sleeping literally within feet of much more violent offenders. Add to this dangerous mix the increasing use of our prisons to house the mentally ill.
Our corrections officers have a tough and dangerous job, working with some of the worst of the worst and dangerous gang members. It’s not an easy or glamorous job, and the pay and benefits come nowhere near compensating them for the danger they put themselves in daily. The vast majority of them and their supervisors are good, decent, hardworking men and women who deserve our respect and appreciation.
As with any organization, there are always some bad apples. When they become emboldened in our prisons, it can and does have deadly consequences. Strong leadership is needed at the top of the department and within each of our correctional facilities.
With so much testosterone on exhibit, both the inmates and the prison staff need to be controlled and well managed. Prison life is governed by unwritten rules, and there is a hierarchy among the inmates and the staff. What happens behind the prison walls gets little attention from the outside world.
Very few people other than family and friends of those incarcerated give much thought to the treatment of inmates and muster very little sympathy for their circumstance. But at a minimum, we should agree that inmates have basic human rights, including the right not to be beaten, sodomized, scalded or tortured.
Even those of us who believe in harsh punishment should be incensed at what is happening in the Florida Department of Corrections, the inability of those within the system to stop it and the efforts by some in the system to cover it up.
Four investigators within the Department of Corrections filed a federal whistle-blower complaint weeks ago depicting a corrupt system. They allege that state prisoners were beaten and tortured, that guards smuggled in drugs in exchange for money and sex and that guards used gang members to control the prison population. Their efforts to expose the abuses were met with retaliation, including internal affairs complaints.
Two of the most egregious cases they reported:
♦ The death of 27-year-old Randall Jordan-Aparo, whose body was coated with yellow chemical gas. He begged for help for five days in solitary confinement. He was serving an 18-month sentence for credit-card fraud and drug charges.
♦ The death of Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate placed in a scalding hot shower as punishment for defecating in his cell. He begged for help before he died. He was serving a two-year term for drug possession. Another inmate claims he was ordered to clean up the crime scene and to discard the melted skin that stuck to the floor.
When Secretary Mike Crews showed very little concern over these allegations, former corrections chief James McDonough was quick to ask, “Where is the outrage?”
Gov. Rick Scott has been remarkably quiet about these travesties even as the deaths have climbed and the cover-ups have been exposed. Why isn’t he demanding accountability from his department?
I’m not sure which is worse — the corruption, torture, sadism and deaths or the blatant attempts to intimidate, retaliate and cover up the facts. This isn’t a third-world country, and that kind of barbarian behavior cannot be allowed to fester in our institutions.
Indeed, where is the outrage?
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at [email protected]