March 21, 2006

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Payback time: Florida DOC agrees to investigate allegations of former inmate

      As a young man, Thomas Craig spent several years incarcerated in one of Florida’s toughest correctional institutions, convicted of armed robbery.

      “I was no angel,” he says now. “I was a messed up teenager. But whatever I did pales next to what was done to me- and unfortunately, that’s been the story of too many lives in the state of Florida.”

      Now Florida correctional officials- already facing a surge of unwelcome scrutiny in the wake of the forced resignation of former commissioner James Crosby, nine firings of high ranking officials by Crosby’s successor, and the release of a videotape showing the fatal beating of a fourteen year old boy- have been put on notice by Craig: I know where the bodies are buried.

      What happened to Craig was bizarre enough in itself: when inmate John Lee Fort confessed on national television to the murder of another inmate and claimed it was a guard-ordered assassination, those with reasons not to want to believe Fort chose Craig as a handy fall guy. Locked up for two years in solitary confinement, he communicated with the outside world solely by means of hand signals to other inmates.

      Craig was acquitted of the murder in 56 minutes and released a few months later. It’s not what happened to him that has him upset at the moment, however- it’s what he believes has happened to a long string of others. And what he saw.

      “I was on the burial squad,” he says. “They would take us out and have us burying these guys who had supposedly died of natural causes. I managed to get a look into a couple of those coffins- one had an obvious bullet hole, another’s skull was crushed.”

      Finding himself still troubled by his experiences a quarter-century later, he began to do some Internet research- and found out about cases like that of Bennie Demps, an inmate executed in 2000 despite the existence of a DOC report that seemed to point to his innocence, and Frank Valdes, an inmate that the state of Florida now openly admits was killed by out-of-control correctional officers.

      “It was so bad when I was in there,” he says of his time in Florida’s oldest and most notorious lockdown, the Rock in Raiford. “Everybody was terrorized all the time. It was no kind of existence, and the guards- I won’t dignify these people with the term correctional officer- were as brutal as the people they were supposed to be watching. There was open involvement with the KKK, tolerance of rape, constant violence- all on the taxpayer’s dollar.”

      The case of Martin Anderson, a fourteen year old inmate that the state’s medical examiner initially claimed had died of his sickle cell anemia despite irrefutable evidence of a brutal beating, convinced Craig he had to add his unique voice to the chorus calling for change in Florida.

      “There is not statute of limitations on murder,” he observes. “And who should be more accountable than the people getting paid to hold others accountable?”

      With the help of Dan Miller, a fellow ex-con, Craig has put Florida officials on notice: he wants the world to know what he knows about the corpses he was forced to bury in the prison cemetery.

      Inspector General Douglas Stephens has promised an investigation. “I have reviewed your email and would like for you to send me the names and identifiers for any inmates that you believe were killed while they were in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections.  I will investigate and then get back with you…I assure you my intentions are to take the appropriate action and investigate any suspicious death.,” he said in an emailed response to overtures from Miller advising him of the situation.

      “It’s a start,” says Craig. “I’d like to believe they are going to do the right thing and clean their house. But I’d like to see the Department of Justice overseeing any investigation.

      “If you’d been through what I’ve been through with these people, you wouldn’t feel very trusting either.”


Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice