75ºF

Florida corrections chief stepping down

Mike Crews

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Gov. Rick Scott's corrections chief, Mike Crews, announced Monday he is stepping down from the agency grappling with reports of abuse by prison guards, allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers and a multimillion-dollar deficit.

Crews did not immediately return a telephone call, but Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jessica Cary confirmed the secretary made his resignation public within the agency Monday morning.

Crews, whose resignation has been the subject of rumors for months, is the first agency head to step down since Scott's re-election Nov. 4.

Crews, 53, was the third Department of Corrections secretary appointed during Scott's first term in office.

Crews launched a crusade to clean up the corrections agency this summer after reports of inmate deaths and abuse at the hands of prison guards. Crews, who began his career as a prison guard, fired dozens of prison workers, initiated new standards for conduct and asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where he spent nearly three decades before becoming the corrections agency's deputy secretary in 2012, to investigate more than unresolved 100 inmate deaths.

Black leaders are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to expand an investigation into wrongdoing at several Florida prisons.

And a group of corrections investigators who work for Scott's inspector general filed a lawsuit against Crews, Scott and others earlier this year, alleging they were retaliated against for exposing the death of an inmate that opened a floodgate of questions about inmate abuse.

Scott's first prison chief, Ed Buss, was forced to step down after less than a year on the job after being at odds with the governor's office over contracts and a massive privatization attempt that the Legislature failed to endorse.

Buss was replaced by Ken Tucker, a longtime Florida Department of Law Enforcement official and one of Crews's mentors. Tucker stepped down two years ago as part of a longtime plan to participate in the state's retirement program.

In December 2012, Crews took over an agency with a $2 billion budget that was $120 million in debt and was tied up in a court battle over privatization of inmate health services. Crews initiated a variety of cost-cutting measures, including having inmates sew their own clothes, make their own laundry soap and wash dishes by hand. Crews said he hoped to whittle the deficit down to $15 million this year.

But Crews' major headaches came this summer after the Miami Herald reported 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. Rainey's death prompted Crews to fire the warden at the prison and clean house at other institutions where inmates have died under questionable circumstances.

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 more than 100 inmate deaths being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

In the lawsuit filed by the group of investigators, the whistleblowers claim they started a probe into allegations of prison guard misconduct at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2013. That investigation revealed that an earlier probe into the 2010 death of inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo, who died in solitary confinement after being repeatedly gassed with noxious chemicals, "was false and misleading." Several of the guards involved in Jordan-Aparo's death have since been fired.

Crews has also wrestled with widespread gang activity aided by corrupt guards.

As an example, two former prison sergeants are awaiting trial after being accused of ordering an inmate to be killed last fall to protect the guards' role as kingpins of an institution-wide gang operation at Taylor Correctional Institution in North Florida.

For more than a year, at least five guards allegedly helped the "Bloods," "Folk" and "MPR" gangs by smuggling drugs, cell phones and cigarettes into the prison in exchange for thousands of dollars in payments, according to probable-cause affidavits.

Cell phones, which can sell for up to $600 inside prisons, are a problem in correctional systems throughout the country, Crews told The News Service of Florida last month.

"You have individuals who say, 'If I bring in 10 of those, I'm probably sitting on $5,000 or $6,000.' Some people can't turn down that temptation," he said. "Yeah, we have gangs in prisons just like are out on the street right now. It is a constant battle to make sure we keep monitoring those and try to minimize their effectiveness inside the institution, and outside the institution, honestly."

Crews also struggled to change the culture of the prison system, which oversees more than 100,000 inmates, and which is the best --- or only --- job in many rural counties, especially in North Florida, where the institutions are located. In some areas, guards are third-generation employees of the corrections department whose family members and neighbors also work at the prisons. Crews tried to convince prison staff to report wrongdoing, but fears of retaliation and shunning are common in the system.

Crews assured workers that he would protect them if they expose abuse or corruption.

"There's no doubt there are still people who work in this agency that are fearful of coming forward for doing the right thing. There's no doubt in my mind about that. We didn't get into the position that we're in today overnight. We're not going to get out of it overnight. This takes time. And when you're trying to change a culture you have to do it from the top down and the bottom up," he said in an October interview.

In September, Crews threatened to stop payments to Missouri-based Corizon, which won a five-year, $1.2 billion contract to provide health care to the majority of the state's prisoners. Crews accused Corizon of failing to follow through after audits revealed shortcomings in multiple areas, including medical care, nursing and administration.