James V. Crosby Jr. is in the spotlight again after an inmate's death and a recent execution.
By ADAM C. SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 30, 1999
STARKE -- Five years ago, New River Correctional Institution was rocked by an internal investigation into a humiliating episode of inmate abuse by corrections officers. Inmates who passed lie detector tests told of being punched, kicked, thrown to the ground and forced to sing Mary Had a Little Lamb by guards, several of whom wound up disciplined or suspended.
The man in charge of New River then was James V. Crosby Jr., a veteran corrections administrator, former Sunday school teacher, and onetime mayor of Starke.
Today, the 46-year-old Crosby is again presiding over a prison mired in scandal.
This time, it's Florida State Prison, and this time it's the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigating his institution. They are looking at whether corrections officers killed death row inmate Frank Valdes.
Crosby is also at the center of controversy because he oversaw the July 8 execution of Allen Lee "Tiny" Davis, whose bloody death has led the state Supreme Court to weigh whether Florida's electric chair should be retired. Crosby has been waiting to see if he will be called as a witness in a four-day hearing on the chair being conducted this week.
Outside experts say there's an axiom in the corrections business: The warden sets the tone for how employees behave.
"The CEO defines the atmosphere, and you find that particularly true in law enforcement and corrections," said Kevin Wright, a criminal justice professor at State University of New York at Binghamton and author of the book, Effective Prison Leadership. "When excessive uses of force are allowed, when disrespect of inmates is allowed, you're going to see more of that going on."
Crosby, a pudgy 5 feet 8 with a clean-shaved head, has had glowing reviews from his supervisors since 1975 and is known among guards and union representatives as an officer's warden. They call him a leader who supports his officers and can be counted on for fairness.
But in the stream of inmate complaints and allegations that have flowed from Florida State Prison in recent weeks, he is portrayed as someone who tolerates abuse.
"Crosby is infamous for condoning beatings at every prison he's ever been at. From the day he got here 15 to 17 months ago, the beatings began to dramatically increase," death row inmate William Van Poyck wrote the Florida Justice Institute three days after Valdes death.
Friendly and self-effacing, Crosby said some inmates bristle because he maintains tight controls over the prisons he runs. But he said in a telephone interview he makes sure people working for him never forget the limits of what's acceptable. The Valdes case, he said, is a "serious," but isolated, incident.
"I'm conservative when it comes to following the rules -- both inmates and staff. The inmates know they're not going to take over the institution with me there, and I make the staff know that I'm going to make sure the inmates follow the rules and that I'm going to make sure the staff do their jobs within the law," Crosby said.
He said he compiled statistics to put some of the inmate allegations into context: Between the time he arrived at Florida State Prison in February 1998 and February 1999, the prison received 70 allegations of abuse by staff. Investigators determined 60 were frivolous, eight were deemed to merit investigations from within the prison, and only two were "serious" allegations requiring outside investigators. Of those two, he said one of the inmates making the allegation refused to take a polygraph test, and the other failed.
Crosby was on vacation July 17, the day Valdes died after a violent confrontation with as many as nine guards. Crosby came to the prison when he heard of the incident, arriving in Bermuda shorts.
Crosby -- Jimmy to his friends -- had expected that being warden at Florida State Prison would be a capstone to a career that began in 1975, and included stints at five other institutions. Florida State Prison, after all, is the state's most famous and high-profile.
But he never expected the $81,354 job would put him under a microscope, yanked into a legal battle over the electric chair and state and federal investigations.
"He's under tremendous stress. Everybody's watching him," said a sympathetic George Denman, Crosby's current boss who has worked with him for more than a decade.
Denman dismissed suggestions that Crosby would ever condone mistreatment of inmates. When officers were accused of hitting inmates after a disturbance at Cross City Correctional Institution, Denman recalled, Crosby was the troubleshooter chosen to straighten out the place in 1990.
"He's a person who's very certain about his values, and he expects everybody who works for him to act in a professional way," Denman said.
Crosby's style was felt quickly when he arrived at Florida State Prison in 1998. Security was tightened considerably, including requiring extra restraints on inmates being moved from the cells. He tightly restricted volunteers who could come to the prison for prison programs, citing security risks.
The Rev. Andrew McRae, a prison chaplain recently suspended for what Crosby would describe only as "serious" allegations against him, said that when Crosby came, "You could see the anti-inmate sentiment grow immediately."
"There had been beatings before, but they were scarce, because the officers would be held accountable. The last couple years it escalated," McRae said.
Everett Perrin ran Florida State Prison a few years before Crosby and said their philosophies were considerably different. Perrin, who moved to Florida from New Hampshire, declined to elaborate on Crosby's style, except to note that Crosby is a native of Starke. That means he has personal relationships throughout the corrections system.
"When you have that baggage, you are more prone to support the staff in minor cases where you probably should be cracking down," said Perrin, now retired.
Retirement is on the horizon for Crosby too. He had been thinking of putting in a little more time after hitting 30 years with corrections. Lately, he said with a chuckle, he's not so sure.
-- Times staff writer Sydney P. Freedberg contributed to this report.