Florida’s prison system has been in the news a lot lately, between suspicious prison deaths, allegations of inmate abuse, and new reforms meant to address such abuses. But, some say the reforms are not enough and a change in leadership should be in store.
In recent months, the Florida Department of Corrections has come under fire for several prison deaths, alleged inmate abuses and its handling of the investigations. A number of prison guards have since been fired as part of a series of new reforms implemented by Secretary Mike Crews.
“In our department, we’re going to be transparent,” said Crews, during an earlier interview with WFSU. “We’ve got nothing to hide and we welcome the opportunity to examine some of these issues, to look at our internal workings, policy and procedures, and where we can make changes, which enhance our ability to do our jobs better, then I think that’s an opportunity that we need to take and we are taking.”
The reforms include having the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigate prison deaths that are not from natural causes.
The latest is Latandra Ellington, who was found dead earlier this month after telling relatives weeks ago she feared for her life at the hands of prison guards. Her family is still seeking answers into her death, and their attorneys say an independent autopsy shows she was punched and kicked.
But, it’s recent media reports into the death of a mentally ill inmate Darren Rainey in 2012 at Dade Correctional Institution that really spurred the reforms. Rainey died after he was left in a scalding hot shower that was allegedly used as a way for guards to punish inmates.
“It’s pretty scary that two years later, there’s no charges, the ME’s report is still pending,” said George Mallinckrodt.
Mallinckrodt says he’s witnessed similar abuses by guards at the South Florida correctional facility. He worked as a mental health counselor in the same psychiatric unit where Rainey died, and outlines some of the alleged abuse in his newly released book called “Getting Away With Murder.”
“In an eerie coincidence, on June 23, 2011, a year to the day before Rainey was killed, an inmate named Joseph Swilling was handcuffed behind his back and briskly escorted to a hallway to meet his fate. Out of sight from cameras, he was thrown to the concrete floor and kicked repeatedly by correctional officers,” he added.
He says the beating would have gone unchecked, if a counselor had not yelled at them to stop. But, for fear of retaliation by guards, he adds his coworker denied seeing anything in the incident report.
So, he says correctional officers continued to harm prisoners, knowing no one would report it.
“And, what we’ve seen is that the line officers who commit these acts are supported by their administrators, by their lieutenants, by the major, they’re all either condoning the activity or they’re covering it up, and it goes all the way up to the warden,” continued Mallinckrodt.
When Mallinckrodt worked for Dade, he was under the supervision of Warden Jerry Cummings. He says he told Cummings about the abuses, but nothing was ever done.
Corrections Secretary Mike Crews has since fired Cummings in July. Mallinckrodt, meanwhile, also no longer works for Dade, after he says he was fired for taking long lunches. But, he says the real reason is because months before he left, he refused to stay silent about inmate abuses, like Swilling’s case.
“And, so I developed incident reports and some of them involved guards in the unit and so, I started to get dirty looks and I was feeling the avalanche of abuse stories,” stated Mallinckrodt. “And, my stress level was through the roof. So, my strategy—being a psychotherapist, always looking for ways to cope—was to take long lunches because I couldn’t stand to be in the place. But, read between the lines because they wanted me silenced.”
He says he even went to the Department of Justice and the FBI, but was told that the only way they would look into it is if one of his co-workers wore a wire. He says that’s impossible because all employees have to go through a metal detector, and his inquiry was dropped.
Still, Mallinckrodt says a standard FBI probe wouldn’t work now, and he hopes the U.S. Department of Justice under outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder can step in.
“Clever guards, administrators, and wardens always put on a show for visiting VIPs. I know this from the many dog and pony shows I witnessed in my unit,” he said.
While he’s critical of the extent of new mental health reforms recently implemented, he does call it a great first step. Among those reform is extra training for prison guards and hiring an ombudsman to represent mentally ill Florida inmates. And, while she too calls it a step in the right direction, former Republican Senator Paula Dockery—who worked on many criminal justice issues in the legislature—says it’s not enough.
“You know the Governor is now on his third Department of Corrections Secretary in less than four years and you’ve had deaths in the prison system, you’ve had cover-ups, you’ve had Inspector Generals, who were trying to get that information out. You’ve got it going all the way up to the head Inspector General under the Governor, in the Governor’s office, and I think there’s some real problems with the way the administration is handling the department of Corrections,” said Dockery.
Dockery concludes it’s in part a leadership problem. She says it started when Ed Buss, Scott’s first Corrections Secretary, was forced to resign before Buss had a chance to do some meaningful work for the department.
“Buss had experience in another system. The other two have not had any experience in the prison system. There has been no strong leadership in the agency in the people he’s put in since Buss,” she added.
She believes Buss was fired over not getting fully on board with prison privatization—an effort pushed by Scott.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.