It was July 10, 2014. Mike Crews, then-secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, was in the thick of a public firestorm over allegations that a mentally ill inmate had died in a scalding shower as part of a punishment ritual by officers at Dade Correctional Institution.
Crews, a former law enforcement officer who had been at the helm of the state’s largest agency for close to three years, had been fielding calls from the governor’s office for weeks. Each message seemed more urgent than the last, with Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election campaign in full swing and civil rights groups calling for a U.S. Justice Department investigation into a series of questionable prison deaths.
“We need you to take a bullet for the governor,’’ Crews recalled being told by the governor’s chief of staff, Adam Hollingsworth, as he was driving home that afternoon from North Carolina, where and he and his wife had spent a few days decompressing.
The former prisons chief, in an exclusive interview with the Miami Herald, said the governor’s office asked him to fire people Crews didn’t believe should fired; it wrote press releases that said things he didn’t say, and orchestrated hastily arranged news conferences that were little more than smokescreens designed to distract from the real crisis that Crews was sounding the alarm on for years: Florida’s prisons were so rundown and understaffed that they had become dangerous.
“I guess you can say they were more concerned with the crafting and writing of news releases and that had little to do with the reality of what needed to be done to keep the institutions safe and secure,’’ Crews said of the governor’s office.
Crews said he saw the prison system cut so many corrections officers that overtime had ballooned to $2.9 million a month. Institutions were so deteriorated that their electrical, plumbing and security systems were constantly failing. Staffing levels were so dangerously low that some institutions weren’t able to adequately keep count of inmates.
The agency’s trucks, buses and vans had so many miles on them that he worried they would break down on the interstate and convicts would escape. Contraband smuggling had become so widespread and lucrative that rank-and-file guards made more money selling $200 packs of cigarettes than they would if they were promoted to a $38,000-a-year lieutenant’s post.
Crews said it was hardly surprising to him that inmate deaths were rising, since instances involving use-of-force had doubled, attacks on corrections officers had increased, and guards were finding themselves unable to control a prison population that had grown while staffing had been slashed.
Then in May, Crews’ job became even more stressful. The Miami Herald and other news media began discovering, investigating and writing about a series of unexplained and, in some cases suspicious prisoner deaths. Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old with severe mental illnesses, had collapsed and died in a 180-degree shower at Dade Correctional that witnesses said had been specifically rigged by corrections officers to punish and control unruly prisoners. Neither the DOC’s inspector general nor Miami-Dade police had investigated Rainey’s death as possible foul play or negligence, creating the appearance of a cover-up.
Shortly thereafter, four investigators with DOC’s inspector general’s office filed a lawsuit claiming that their boss, Jeffery Beasley, had pressured them to cover up the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of another inmate, Randall Jordan-Aparo, who died after he was repeatedly sprayed with chemicals at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010.
With each story that came out, the governor’s office went into a damage-control frenzy, Crews said.
He was told that, going forward, no one should report the details of any inmate death in writing, so every time an inmate died, whether it was from old age or something else, officials were to call Crews on the phone. The calls were coming in at all hours of the day and night.
“We couldn’t ever sleep a whole night through,’’ said Crews’ wife of 28 years, Terri. They met while the two were Florida probation officers.
Crews said it became more apparent to him that few people in Tallahassee — and especially not the governor — were focused on ensuring that the state’s prisons were secure and the agency’s $2.2 billion budget was spent where it needed to be spent.
Over the course of the next 24 hours after returning from North Carolina on July 10, Crews was on a plane to Miami, juggling conference calls and talking points from Hollingsworth and others he said were bent on spinning a plan to take the heat off the governor, who was in a tight race with former Gov. Charlie Crist.
He was picked up at the airport by Randy Tifft, the DOC’s Region 3 director, and driven to Dade Correctional, where he was to hold a news conference the following day. The event was designed to show that Crews was taking action to hold someone accountable in the wake of Rainey’s death. Both Dade’s warden, Jerry Cummings, and his deputy warden, Royce Dykes, were told by Tifft and others that the governor’s people “were on a ledge,’’ and that the two of them needed to think about leaving. Both Cummings and Dykes elected to retire, but the timing of their departures made it appear that they were fired.
Crews said despite being told to fire Dykes, he refused, because Dykes wasn’t working at the time Rainey died.
“I put my foot down. I wasn’t going to fire him,’’ Crews said. “They were both good men and didn’t deserve what happened to them.’’
Crews, who was named by Scott as the third corrections secretary in as many years, had warned that conditions were deteriorating at Florida’s prisons as the governor and Legislature had slashed the DOC’s budget and cut its staff. In September 2013, he told a Senate committee that the DOC budget was $500 million less than it was in 2007, yet there were 9,000 more inmates in the system.
The budget austerity was having an impact on staff, he warned, noting that the starting salary of $32,000 for correctional officers contributed to high staff turnover, and the agency had drawn a lawsuit from the Teamsters Union over comp time.
Despite his pleas for more money, Scott and legislators refused to allocate the additional funds, so Crews got creative.
He had prisoners make their own bedclothes and inmate uniforms. They washed their own clothes and dishes, instead of replacing broken machines. He re-bid the contracts for paper towels and toilet paper to save money, and he asked for community and government agency donations for supplies and equipment.
“No other state agency had to beg for donations for supplies,’’ Crews said.
Pretty soon, Crews said, he was spending so much time begging hotel chains for sheets and pillows for his prisons that he couldn’t sleep at night. The budget had been cut to the point that wardens were trading kitchen equipment for toilet paper and soap.
The agency was spending $1.6 to $2.9 million a month in overtime, Crews said, yet no one seemed to understand that the department would save more money filling some of the department’s more than 1,200 vacancies. Instead, taxpayers were shouldering the cost for overtime and prisons were plagued by guards being unable to keep the peace because they were too burned out from working non-stop, 12-hour shifts.
“When you have $2.9 million a month in overtime, that means an officer is working at least one of his two days off. He is putting in an extra four hours in addition to his 12-hour shift and then, by law, we have to give him eight hours off in between. That means the warden has to fill that gap with more overtime.’’
Crews said it became clear that dangerous incidents involving inmates — either the daily inmate-on-inmate violence or use-of-force by guards on inmates — often corresponded to days and times when prisons were dangerously below minimum staffing levels.
Some prisons were in such disrepair, he said, that their roofs leaked regularly, making it impossible to keep dorms open. At a moment’s notice, facilities would have to shuffle hundreds of prisoners out of flooded dorms, crowding them into areas where staffing was already below minimum levels.
“What people don’t realize is if we have a foot of water in a dorm and the toilets are backed up, then the officers are working in the same conditions,’’ Crews said.
Crews said he appealed to other law enforcement agencies and the postal service to donate vehicles to be used by the prisons because they were spending more money on reimbursing expenses for probation officers and inspectors using personal cars than they would if they used DOC vehicles. The department received 51 vehicles, and while most of them had over 100,000 miles on them, they still saved the agency more than $100,000 a month for the probation department alone, Crews said.
“I bet you every bus we have has over 300,000 miles,’’ Crews said. “We asked for $4 million to $5 million to replace our buses and vans. They gave us $500,000. This is a public safety issue. If those buses break down on an interstate, you have 35 to 50 incorrigible individuals you [don’t] want to deal with.’’
The agency’s staffing issues were exacerbated by the fact that other contracts, including for food and private medical costs, were getting more expensive. The agency, however, wasn’t given more money for the increase in food and other supplies, so it had to take it out of staffing.
“It’s a vicious cycle. All of it had to be absorbed by the institutions, which meant doing more with less,’’ he said.
This year, he said, he refused to sign his budget submittal letter after he was pressured to slash his request for more officers and still publicly maintain the budget was adequate to run a safe prison system. “It was like they were asking me to lie and I wasn’t going to do it,’’ he said.
Throughout his three years with the agency, Crews said he met the governor only once, and that was the day he was interviewed for his post.
“You would think that as the head of the largest agency in Florida, the governor, would once in a while want to get a pulse on what was going on,’’ Crews said. “He called me every now and then to see how things were doing, but that’s about it. I never saw him.’’
After spending most of his career at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Crews had already earned his pension and done his time. The job had taken too much of a toll on his family life. And he and his wife had both lost more than 30 pounds from the stress.
After the November election, he made plans to leave, but again, was asked to stick it out for a few more weeks. This time he declined, and left to accept a job as vice president of the Florida Sheriffs Insurance Institute, which provides workers compensation, auto and law enforcement liability insurance to sheriff’s offices.
“I wasn’t going to give them the pleasure of firing me,’’ Crews said.
On Wednesday, Scott announced a $51.5 million increase in the prisons budget, which includes $16.5 million to fill staff vacancies, $1 million to train new recruits at local colleges, and $15 million to repair deteriorated facilities. Crews’ budget requested only half of the officers he needed — 654 — and $37 million. His successor, Julie Jones, told the Herald/Times on Saturday that she asked for only half the funding because with the additional money to make building repairs, they will no longer need to shift money from salaries to pay for leaking roofs, and with more corrections officers they will save money on overtime.
She did not ask to give staff a raise even though they have not seen one in seven years.
“As much as I would like to say I would like a salary increase for my staff, I can’t tell you what it is based on,’’ Jones said. She hopes to rewrite the job descriptions and expectations and come back with a recommendation.
“The governor has made it clear that he wants true reforms at the Department of Corrections,’’ Scott’s spokesman, John Tupps, said in a statement for this story.
“The governor has very high standards for agency leaders and holds them responsible for making improvements and addressing any chronic failures within their systems. We continue to challenge the DOC to create a culture of transparency and accountability while being good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” the statement continued.
“Governor Scott is proud to have appointed Secretary Jones to lead the agency and is confident that her fresh ideas and new perspective will benefit the agency as they work to keep every family safe,” it added.
Crews said the governor’s office must support Jones’ budget requests if the agency is to turn itself around.