By Julie K. Brown

Bernadette Gregory was getting out of prison in eight months and planning her wedding when she was found hanging in a cell at Florida's Lowell Correctional Institution.

Prison authorities say Gregory, 42, tied a double knot in a sheet, twisted it several times around her top bunk, looped the other end around her neck and hanged herself.

Despite relying on a wheelchair to get around, she did all of this in 11 minutes -- while she was handcuffed, a detail the Department of Corrections' investigative summary mentions only in passing.

Gregory's 2009 death is one of many that don't seem to add up but have nevertheless been tucked away in the department's files, categorized as suicides, homicides, accidents or natural deaths.

With 320 inmate deaths tallied as of Dec. 8, Florida's prison system is on track to have the deadliest year in its history. This rise in prison deaths coincides with an aging of the prison population, but also with a doubling of incidents involving the use of force by officers over the past five years.

Now, six months after the Miami Herald began an investigation into the questionable deaths of inmates in Florida's state prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice is gathering evidence for a possible investigation into whether the agency has violated the constitutional rights of prisoners. The Justice Department has sent letters to Florida's three U.S. attorneys informing them of the inquiry.

State lawmakers also are scrutinizing the prison system in the wake of a public outcry by human rights groups and prison reform activists. Gov. Rick Scott last week named a new DOC secretary, Julie Jones, to head the department -- which is the third-largest prison system in the nation, with 101,000 inmates and a $2.1 billion budget.

In yet another development, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement this month asked the Legislature for an additional $8.4 million to probe prison deaths and cases involving excessive force by Florida law enforcement officers.

"If nothing else, the corrections officers and the people running the institutions have been put on notice that someone else is watching them and they are no longer policing themselves," said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami.

Since starting its investigation in May, the Herald has received dozens of letters from inmates and their families, providing troubling details of other suspicious deaths in Florida prisons. Many of the letters assert inmates were killed by corrections officers or died from criminal negligence by handlers who then, with the approval of their supervisors, covered up their actions.

In many cases, the inmates allege that officers threatened to harm or even kill them if they told anyone about what they saw or heard.

The Herald began its series with the death of Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old mentally ill inmate at Dade Correctional Institution, south of Homestead. Rainey died after corrections officers allegedly locked him in a 180-degree shower, purportedly as punishment for defecating on the floor of his cell and refusing to clean it up. Witnesses said they left him in the closet-like shower for nearly two hours as he screamed in agony, then collapsed.

After the story was published, then-DOC Secretary Mike Crews forced DCI's warden and deputy warden to step down and announced a series of reforms.

But a review of those actions shows that few of them have actually resulted in the accountability and "transparency" that Crews -- who retired this month -- promised.

For example:

--Though the secretary fired more than two dozen officers for excessive force that led to the deaths of inmates, many have since gotten their jobs back.

--A new inmate mortality database lists all inmate deaths, but the supplementary reports that detail their deaths are so heavily redacted that many are unreadable. The prison system says the redactions are justified by a federal law that prohibits hospitals and other entities from releasing medical information. Families, however, have to hire a lawyer and go to court to get unredacted reports to learn the full story of how their loved ones died.

--The "transparency database," as Crews called it, posts detailed reports only on those inmates who died of accidents, homicides or suicides. More than 90 percent of Florida prison deaths are deemed "natural" -- a higher percentage than in comparable states. There is no way to glean if the classification is justified.

--While the agency installed hundreds of new, high-tech "fixed-wing" surveillance cameras, no one from the public can view the footage because the state sees that as a breach of security. In the Rainey case and others, investigators also say that surveillance cameras malfunctioned.

--Crews announced that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement would henceforth review all inmate deaths, thereby providing another layer of oversight. But in order to do this, FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey says he needs about $8.4 million and 66 new investigators, analysts and supervisors to handle the added caseload. The request is pending, meaning scores of death investigations are in limbo.

The investigation by Miami-Dade police of Rainey's death remains open even though it happened more than two years ago. The Herald found that despite multiple witnesses coming forward, neither police detectives nor the medical examiner interviewed them until the newspaper began asking questions about the case this past spring.

Randall Jordan-Aparo's death at Franklin Correctional Institution was one of those determined to be the result of natural causes. But in 2013, three years after he died, inspectors with the prison system's inspector general's office accidentally discovered key evidence in the case had either been ignored or covered up by their own agency. Jordan-Aparo, 27, suffered from a rare blood disorder that caused him respiratory distress, yet he was repeatedly gassed -- blasted with debilitating chemical agents -- by officers who lied on their reports, according to a subsequent investigation, saying the inmate had been causing a disturbance at the prison.

Jordan-Aparo, the inspectors found, had only begged to be taken to the hospital because he was ill, and had spoken curtly to a nurse who dismissed his pleas. He was found sprawled on the floor of his cell, coated with chemical residue, a weathered Bible by his side.

The Justice Department is reviewing his death.

Latandra Ellington was found dead just days after she wrote her family a letter saying that a sergeant at Lowell Correctional was threatening to kill her. Though a source at the prison told the newspaper that prison officials announced Ellington died of an overdose, an independent autopsy paid for by her family showed she had suffered trauma to her abdomen consistent with being beaten.

Bernadette "Brandi" Gregory's death at Lowell, on July 22, 2009, is one of hundreds of inmate deaths annually that received no scrutiny from local police or the FDLE, even though her family told prison officials and the medical examiner that she, too, was being threatened by corrections officers.

Four days before her death, DOC records show that Gregory filed a written complaint alleging that a Captain Greer had beaten her and bashed her over the head with a radio.

"I will not sleep on this. I will follow through to the end and press charges," she wrote in her complaint, dated July 18, 2009.

She had, records show, repeatedly complained that officers were ridiculing her, telling her they would beat her "crippled ass." She complained that officers had falsified disciplinary reports as a means to place her in solitary confinement for more than 96 days.

Her fiance, Clifford Evans, said he couldn't visit her because she was in confinement most of the time. He last spoke with Gregory about two weeks before her death.

"She only had a few more months. She was planning on coming home and wanted to have a wedding. She didn't kill herself, I can tell you that," said Evans, who received her last letter on the day she died.

In the letter, she wrote that guards at the prison were threatening her and that the captain had beaten her over the head with his radio.

Evans said Gregory required a wheelchair to get around because she suffered leg injuries in an ambulance crash in Polk County three years earlier. She was thrown from the ambulance, and a firefighter assisting with her transport was killed.

"Both of her knees had to be replaced," Evans said. She received a $75,000 settlement from Polk, according to news accounts.

Linda Thompson, a former Lowell inmate, described to the Herald seeing a group of corrections officers beating and kicking Gregory in a common area of the prison on the day she died.

"They flipped over the wheelchair, and she hit her head. We all saw it happen. The guards tried to block us from seeing what they were doing, but I saw a sergeant beat her in the head with a radio," -- which would have been a separate head-blow from the earlier one alleged in her letter home.

About dinnertime, Thompson said, the ambulances arrived.

"Right then, we all said they killed that girl. She was in lock-up and half the time they don't let you have any clothing, blankets and pillows, nothing. How did that woman get a sheet? How did she tie it in knots when she was handcuffed?"

Former Lowell corrections officer Debbie Escoe, now retired, said she doubts that Gregory's death was the result of foul play because surveillance cameras would have showed everyone who came and went from her confinement cell.

Escoe, who helped cut Gregory down, said it would have been difficult -- but not impossible -- for her to tie the ligature in 11 minutes while handcuffed in front of her torso.

"I had to lift her up, and I don't know how I did it because she was a lot bigger than I was," said Escoe, who left the prison system in 2010.

As with other reports, the death investigation summary is heavily redacted, with large chunks of information blacked out. There is no indication that any inmates were interviewed.

A spokesman for the department said Friday that her death was thoroughly investigated and two officers were disciplined for failing to follow procedure and failing to protect Gregory.

DOC's investigative summary said that a "suicide-type note" was found in the pocket of Gregory's dress. In fact, the note doesn't appear to be a suicide note at all.

It was a birthday letter to her fiance that mentions nothing about intending to take her own life.

"Happy Birthday honey. I love you with every breath that it takes," the note said.

federal involvement

If the federal government exerts control over the Florida prison system, it won't be the first time. In the mid-1970s, Florida State Prison inmate Michael Costello charged in a lawsuit that prison conditions were unconstitutional because healthcare was so abysmal. Costello filed the lawsuit on a paper bag because corrections officers wouldn't supply him with writing paper.

As a result, the federal courts, citing the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, oversaw the state's prisons for more than two decades, ordering legislators to relieve overcrowding and provide adequate medical and healthcare.

Federal judges have also ruled that Florida's propensity for gassing mentally ill inmates constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Ron McAndrew, a retired Florida warden, said a shake-up in the department is long overdue and that he hopes the Justice Department will step in further.

"They are getting away with murder, quite frankly," said McAndrew, who now works as a prison consultant. "There are cases that go back decades and not just state correctional institutions, but juvenile institutions as well."

Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.

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