Prisons Work to Cut Inmate Abuse

Article excerpt

Byline: Rich Tucker, Times-Union staff writer

When Death Row inmate Frank Valdes was killed in July 1999 and several officers were accused in his death, the Florida Department of Corrections scrambled to implement reforms that would make prisons safer while combatting a storm of negative publicity.

Video cameras were installed at the prison where Valdes died and at other state institutions, and an overhaul of how officers handle inmates was begun.

More than two years later, as jury selection continues for four of the Florida State Prison officers charged with beating Valdes to death, correction officials said those changes have had positive results.

Yearly reports prepared by the department's inspector general indicate the number of inmate injuries and deaths dropped from 2,836 in fiscal year 1999 to 2,590 last year. The reports also show assaults by inmates fell from 3,907 to 3,437 in those years.

And other plans for reform are in the pipeline, such as a pilot program already in place that reduces the amount of time prospective officers spend in the classroom, replacing that time with almost 200 hours of hands-on training in a prison compound under the supervision of a certified officer.

"Anytime there are professional men and women who are part of an incident like this, the public does tend to look at us differently," said Stirling Ivey, public relations director for the Department of Corrections. "Because of Valdes' death, we certainly took a look at those policies and procedures."

The inmate's death gave newspapers and television plenty of fodder for critical reports of how corrections officers treated inmates. In response, Secretary of Corrections Michael Moore fired five of the accused officers -- including all four on trial in Bradford County -- and announced a plethora of reforms while reaffirming a zero tolerance policy for inmate abuse.

Moore also called for cameras to be installed in the Florida State Prison wing where Valdes had been held, instituted a policy where all uses of force are videotaped and beefed up the process by which inmate allegations are investigated.

But in December, before any of those reforms even had a chance to work, the department was taking hits again -- this time by an audit conducted by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, an independent arm of the Legislature. …