FBI Joins Probe of Prisons Inmate's Death, Abuse Complaints Prompt Review of Florida System

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The FBI and federal prosecutors were called in by the state yesterday to perform a wide-ranging inquiry into a possible "sub-culture" of civil rights violations and physical abuse within the Florida prison system.

The expanded probe resulted from "numerous allegations of abuse" that have come to light since the fatal beating of an inmate at the Florida State Prison at Starke last week, said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Tim Moore. The allegations, which Moore refused to divulge, were made to the department both before and after the July 17 killing of Death Row inmate Frank Valdes.

The FBI inquiries will begin at Florida State Prison but can be expanded to include any of the 58 prisons in the Florida corrections system, Moore said.

"Anything is fair game," he said.

Corrections Secretary Michael Moore, who joined FDLE's Moore at a news conference in Tallahassee yesterday, said the allegations of civil rights abuses include excessive use of force, poor living conditions and deprivation of basic needs.

Michael Moore also said federal investigations will try to break down a culture of protectiveness in the prison system in which officers are unwilling to report violations by other officers.

"People are afraid to tell, people are afraid to say, and that's a phenomenon that can't occur," he said.

FBI Special Agent Bill Cheek of Jacksonville said yesterday his agency so far has received at least two specific complaints about possible civil rights violations at Florida State Prison. Those are in addition to a complaint involving the Valdes case, he said.

"Any complaints that we receive we will investigate," Cheek said. "We're going to act only on valid complaints that we receive."

Brian Kane, managing assistant U.S. attorney in Jacksonville, confirmed the Justice Department has agreed to work with FDLE, corrections and the State Attorney's Office in Gainesville on a "cooperative, thorough" investigative effort.

The expanded probe was blasted by Gloria Fletcher, a Police Benevolent Association attorney in Gainesville who is helping represent the prison officers now under investigation.

"I think that's an extreme overreaction," Fletcher said. "It's going to be a bunch of convicted felons claiming that something bad happened to them."

Though Michael Moore said the probe should not be seen as a slight to the roughly 28,000 corrections employees, Fletcher said the move will undoubtedly lower morale among workers at Florida prisons.

"There's no other way you can see this other than to cast a dark cloud over all the men and women who work in that department," she said.

While authorities wouldn't specify the nature of the complaints they are receiving, a complaint regarding inmate treatment at the Starke prison was brought to light yesterday by Randall Berg, an attorney who works for the Florida Justice Institute in Miami.

Berg filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville yesterday alleging an excessive use of force by five Florida State Prison guards against inmate David C. Skrtich in 1998. The lawsuit alleges that the guards, who worked on the solitary confinement cells known as X-Wing, punched, kicked and beat Skrtich during an inmate "extraction" from his cell. …