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From outside, he pushes prison reform

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published January 18, 2007


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DUNNELLON - Ron McAndrew steers his pontoon boat down the Withlacoochee River in early January on a chilly afternoon of faint sunlight.

Turning the motor off and drifting past turtles and alligators on the bank, McAndrew opens a thick red folder and begins to read his notes:

"Today is August 11, 1999. I am reaching a point of frustration ... relative to issues at Florida State Prison. Constant misinterpretations of the truth by my successor at FSP, James V. Crosby, continue to surface..."

McAndrew could not be farther from the bleak concrete and steel world of the prison, where he was warden before Crosby. Nor could he be closer.

He is preparing to testify at a federal civil trial in March about Frank Valdes, an inmate who was beaten to death at Florida State Prison in 1999. McAndrew already has given testimony that he warned Crosby to fire specific guards who beat inmates at the prison. Crosby promoted them. Valdes was killed 16 months later.

For McAndrew, who retired three years ago from the state prison system, the Valdes case is not only about setting the record straight about what he told Crosby. It is about accomplishing in retirement what he couldn't do as warden: stop inmate abuse.

A haunting scene

McAndrew and his wife, Lynne, planned to spend their retirement exploring the Withlacoochee. They got a large cooler and a bird book.

But McAndrew got restless.

"I couldn't sleep at night because I was still so infuriated over the brutality in our prisons that I couldn't stop," he said.

Last year, at 67, McAndrew left his bird book at home and began taking files of court documents on his river excursions. As an advocate for prison reform, he testifies and gives advice to inmates and their families who are suing over inmate abuse.

McAndrew has already played a major part in several abuse cases. In one, male inmates at Hamilton Correctional Institution sued after a prison administrator was convicted of raping them. McAndrew looked at incident reports and grievances and determined the warden knew about the abuse. The inmates got a settlement in January.

"I have to be outspoken," McAndrew said. "To have knowledge and not report it is a crime."

But there was a time he spoke up and no one listened.

As an otter floats past the boat with a bream in its paws, McAndrew recalls the day in 1996 when he opened the doors of a solitary cell and found Frank Valdes lying naked in the dark, covered in his own feces.

There was nothing in the cell. Months before, correctional officers had removed everything: the three-inch mattress pad and sheet from his steel bed, his towel, toothbrush, toilet paper and clothes.

"It was haunting," McAndrew said. "He was balled up on the floor. I ordered every set of cell doors opened on X Wing and discovered more inmates in that same condition."

After ordering showers, lights on and clothes and property returned, McAndrew said he made daily trips to X Wing to check on Valdes and the other inmates. Valdes, who had been sent to death row for killing a corrections officer 12 years before, was not easy to engage.

"Frank Valdes was full of rage," McAndrew said. "But he deserved better than he got. What he did and his date with the death chamber was another story for another day. But, while he was alive and in state custody, he deserved better treatment."

Wanda Valdes, then married to Valdes, recalls an unexpected letter: "Frank wrote that McAndrew was different, that he tried to help inmates."

Bucking the system

Ron McAndrew made an unlikely prison guard.

After a stint in the Air Force in France in the late '50s, he worked his way up the ladder at Bluebell International, becoming head of its Asia duty-free sales. By his mid 30s, he wore Lanvin suits, flew first class and drank Dom Perignon champagne nightly.

Don Dewitt, who had been in the Air Force with McAndrew and knew him during the duty-free years, says his buddy had "an uncanny ability to make people comfortable."

But McAndrew said he was "living too fast and headed for a hard fall." He had two failed marriages and was "going out every night and spending wildly."

"My only hope was to get back to basics," he said.

In 1978, he left Bluebell. On a visit to friends in South Florida, he looked for work. A job counselor told him the Florida Department of Corrections had good benefits and was desperate for guards. At age 40, McAndrew shaved his goatee and began patrolling a mosquito-infested prison near the Everglades.

Bill Rouse, then the warden at the Dade Correctional Institution, described his new guard as "unusual from the start."

McAndrew took his ill-fitting uniforms to a tailor and invited staff over for coq au vin and red wine. He said "please and thank you" to inmates. And he reported guards' illegal money-making schemes to the FBI. Many guards quit under threat of indictment.

"Ron's behavior set him at odds with some staff and made him a hero to the rest of us," Rouse said. It also set McAndrew on a fast track toward warden.

McAndrew said he quickly learned there were "three types" of correctional officers: "A small cadre - about 15 percent -- are brilliant and support the laws. About 5 percent are vicious, mentally disturbed and sadistic. The large bulk - about 80 percent -- swing in the most comfortable direction."

As a warden, he said, he tried to send the right message to the 80 percent by supporting the 15 percent with good evaluations, raises and promotions, and firing and demoting the others.

Suspecting that a goon squad of guards was beating prisoners, he activated videocameras, providing information to the inspector general for the state prison system.

"It was an uphill battle every inch of the way," McAndrew said.

A dire warning

He said he also became increasingly disturbed by executions.

"It's a horrible job. You sit on the bunk of the guy you're getting ready to kill. You read the death warrant and say, 'It's time.' Then you kill him. Later, he comes back and sits on your bed - not just in the middle of the night. He comes at lunch. He comes any time and doesn't go away. He changes you."

When McAndrew left Florida State Prison in 1998, according to his notarized notes, he told Crosby about correctional officers under investigation who would "beat an inmate's ass in a New York minute."

He warned: "If they are not stopped, it will only be a matter of time before an inmate is killed."

On July 17, 1999, Valdes was beaten to death in his cell by four guards, with five more covering for them. They kicked and punched him as he lay in a fetal position on the floor.

The guards were indicted, but a jury acquitted them in 2002 because jurors said they couldn't determine who did what. Valdes' father later sued in federal court, saying the killing violated his son's civil rights.

Crosby, who rose to the top corrections job in the state, has since been convicted of corruption for taking more than $60,000 in kickbacks from a prison snack vendor. He will be sentenced in April.

Crosby's attorney, Ronald Wasilenko in Jacksonville, was unavailable for comment, an assistant said.

As McAndrew turns his boat toward home he puts away the red file and recalls what he liked about his 24 years in the prison system: "Treating inmates like human beings and seeing them become more human."

A few days before Christmas 1996, he and his staff distributed gift bags to the 300 inmates in solitary. They contained socks, handkerchiefs, candy bars and fruit. When the inmates opened them, McAndrew recalls, they cried.

"It was like giving them a beautiful day on the river," he said.

Epilogue

Wednesday night, Ron McAndrew got a call telling him the Valdes case was settled for $737,500. He and Lynne were eating a chicken curry he learned to make in Asia.

His reaction: "It finally settled! I'm amazed it took this long!"

Then, he said: "Frank Valdes killed a colleague of mine and for that I despised him. But I love the law, and the law was broken. If that gang of goons had allowed Frank to wait out his time, the law would have taken its course. But, no, they took the law into their own hands.

"It's them and people like them who keep me fighting."

 

[Last modified January 18, 2007, 00:35:05]


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