By Julie K. Brown
Judith Arrascue says she has tried for months to find out what happened to her husband, Luis, a state prison inmate who died at the Lake Butler Reception and Medical Center in April.
On Tuesday, Florida's Department of Corrections unveiled a new online database of inmate deaths that reveals Arrascue died after he "fell down on the sidewalk'' outside one of the prison dorms.
His death, the investigative summary says, was accidental. Informed of that finding Tuesday, Arrascue remained suspicious.
Five months after the episode, she said she has no autopsy, no incident report, and no other details from the Department of Corrections, except that her husband's head "smashed like a watermelon'' on the concrete pavement.
The online document describing Arrascue's death, one of only eight detailed case summaries posted thus far, is heavily redacted. "How can that be an accident?'' his wife asked, weeping. "He was pushing a man in a wheelchair.''
Florida's Department of Corrections, facing intensifying scrutiny over a growing number of suspicious inmate deaths and reports of alleged abuse involving prison guards, introduced the online database cataloging all inmate deaths over the past 14 years.
The database lists inmates by name, prison, race and manner of death, and supplies other details that the Miami Herald had been trying to obtain from the department since May, when the newspaper began a series of articles about prison deaths.
Corrections Secretary Michael Crews said in a news release Tuesday the move is another in a series of reforms aimed at increasing "transparency and accountability into the functions of the department.''
Some prison advocates were critical, saying the database doesn't go far enough.
"It's more data to work with, but in the larger scheme of things what you need to see is transparency on investigations of alleged malfeasance,'' said Brad Brockmann, executive director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Miriam Hospital/Brown University Medical School in Providence, R.I.
The database lists about 100 cases that remain under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, as well as others that are closed, including the case of inmate Theo Hall, who died in February at Okeechobee Correctional Institution after he "accidentally spilled some hot soup on his feet.''
The numbers show that inmate deaths across the state rose in 2012 and 2013, inching over 300 both of those years.
Since 2000, some 3,400 prisoners have died in the state prison system, all but about 200 of them men. A majority of the deaths were classified as natural or accidental. The state recorded 86 homicides and 90 suicides during that 14-year period.
In May, the Herald wrote about the death of Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old inmate in Dade Correctional Institution's mental health unit who died in June 2012 after, multiple witnesses say, he was forced into a scalding shower and left for as long as two hours. A Herald investigation showed that other inmates -- as well as a psychotherapist in the unit -- had told the prison hierarchy that the mentally ill were being violently mistreated and antagonized "for sport'' by the staff at Dade Correctional.
Among facilities that don't cater to older inmates, Dade Correctional, near Homestead, had the fourth-highest number of deaths over the past 10 years -- 25 -- including six last year.
One of 10 state-run facilities with mental health units, Dade Correctional is the focus of a civil lawsuit, filed Tuesday. It seeks an injunction to stop what the plaintiff, Disability Rights Florida, Inc., calls "widespread'' abuse of mentally ill prisoners.
"The purpose of the Department of Corrections' in-patient mental health units is to provide treatment for mentally ill inmates, not to punish them," said Peter Sleasman of Florida Institutional Legal Services, which filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Miami.
Corrections officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, but pointed out that Crews has announced "specialty training'' for staffers who deal with mentally ill inmates and that new centers are being set up to ease the transition of mentally ill inmates as they finish their sentences.
The department's database shows there has been a significant jump in deaths classified as open or unresolved over the past year, a statistic that troubles Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
"If 'pending' means 'open' or 'yet to be determined,' it raises questions about how many of the open deaths were inmates killed at the hands of prison guards,'' Simon said.
The deaths all need to be reviewed, given how some of them have been sloppily investigated and even covered up, he said.
Among the cases initially closed as a natural death was that of Randall Jordan-Aparo, who died at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010. His death was classified as the result of abscesses in his heart and lungs. But after receiving multiple tips from sources at the prison, inspectors reopened the case last year, concluding that Jordan-Aparo died after he was repeatedly gassed by prison guards, and prison nurses refused to take him to the hospital. His case has been reopened by the FDLE and the FBI.
The four inspectors who reopened the case have since filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit against their bosses, claiming they've been intimidated and retaliated against. Four guards at Franklin remain suspended with pay pending the outcome of the probes.
Although the database lists all deaths, it includes summaries of just the eight cases, including Rainey's. The documents are all heavily redacted.
DOC spokeswoman Jessica Cary said additional case summaries will be posted as they become available. The redactions involve medically protected information and other details that could compromise prison security, she said.
Judith Arrascue said her husband, 44, was transported to Lake Butler from Lake Correctional Institution after he was forced to take too much medication.
"He kept telling me 'if I don't take the medication they are going to put me in the box.' And once I could hear a nurse threaten to put him in the box,'' said Arrascue, who lives in Orlando.
One day, Arrascue said, she was talking to him, and the next day she was told he was dead. He had been released from the prison's hospital and was waiting to be transferred back to Lake, she said.
She said she was told it could be six months before she receives the autopsy.
"I want to know what happened to him,'' she said.
How to obtain an inmate's death record:
Records regarding the death of an inmate can be requested by emailing co.PublicRecords@mail.dc.state.fl.us
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