Florida invites media to inspect prisons after inmate death
August 19, 1999
From Correspondent Mark Potter
STARKE, Florida (CNN) -- For the first time in more than a decade, Florida this week opened the doors of some its toughest prisons to reporters and cameras in hopes of chasing away the shadow that has hung over the prison system since last month's death of an inmate.
That death, at Florida State Prison near the town of Starke, sparked a murder investigation and the suspension of nine corrections officers.
The prison is Florida's maximum security facility and its death row houses the state's most notorious criminals. Forty-four have been put to death in the electric chair since 1979.
Frank Valdez had been sentenced to die for shooting and killing a corrections officer. But the violent and unruly inmate was moved off death row and into what is known as "X-Wing," a group of disciplinary cells, where he was found dead on July 17.
Nine officers suspended
An autopsy revealed that most of his ribs were broken and that he was severely bruised.
State law enforcement agents, conducting a murder investigation from a trailer near the prison, suspect Valdez may have been beaten to death by X-Wing corrections officers.
Nine officers have been suspended with pay, although no charges have been filed.
Guards stated in their incidence reports that Valdez had to be forcibly removed from his cell for a search. Some suggested he may have injured himself afterward -- by diving onto the floor.
The attorney representing the nine officers said he is aware of no evidence to support a criminal accusation. He said the men acted in compliance with Department of Corrections policy and with state and federal laws.
Other allegations of abuse
But state homicide investigators have now been joined by the FBI, which is looking into possible civil rights violations -- and not just in the Valdez case.
In Gainesville, Florida, a prisoner rights organization says a number of inmates claim recently to have been beaten on the X-Wing.
"When they came in they would receive what was referred to as an 'initiation beating,'" said Arlene Huszar of Florida Institutional Legal Services. "And in some cases, pillow cases were put over their heads so they wouldn't be able to identify the corrections officers."
Since Valdez's death, prison officials have changed procedures, and have installed cameras on X-Wing. They are also videotaping use-of-force incidents.
"It gives you better tracking, and monitoring of your whole operation," said Florida State Prison warden James Crosby.
By making changes, and opening their doors to reporters, prison officials hope to improve their image -- which may not happen until the Valdez case is solved.
Prison populations up, but rate of growth drops
Florida Department of Corrections
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