HD: New prisons chief from the ranks

For most of the last four decades, Florida's prison system has been run by a son of Bradford County, home to the death chamber and cradle of the ""Iron Triangle,'' a cluster of three major prisons that form a razor-wire corridor along State Road 16 north of Starke.

First there was Louie Wainwright, the Bradford County native who worked for five governors from 1962 to 1987. Then came Richard L. Dugger, who served four years under Gov. Bob Martinez and saw to the execution of serial killer Ted Bundy.

Last week, after a 12-year stretch of corrections secretaries from other locales, Gov. Jeb Bush placed Florida's prison system in the hands of James V. Crosby Jr., a savvy pragmatist, a career administrator for 27 years at the Department of Corrections, and another Bradford County native.

Like so many others in north-central Florida, Crosby first took a prison job because it was one of the few careers that offered a future.

”It was nice for the governor to reach out to a small-town, country boy,'' Crosby said Saturday. "Florida's a large place.''

Unlike his predecessor, Michael Moore, who hailed from Texas and South Carolina, the 50-year-old Crosby is a gregarious man and a veteran practitioner of Florida politics. He has the enthusiastic support of the correctional officers union, which often battled Moore. And he possesses a confident, plain-spoken style that some say will lead to more fruitful encounters with the Florida Legislature.

His appointment marks a return to the idea that the state's second-largest agency … the fourth-largest prison system in the nation … can be managed and improved from within.

But in tapping Bradford County and its deep prison traditions, Bush revisited one of the darkest moments in state corrections history. In July 1999, death row inmate Frank Valdes was so badly beaten inside Florida State Prison that medical experts said it appeared he had been in a serious car wreck.

Unable to pinpoint the blame after a monthlong trial last year, a Bradford County jury cleared three guards accused in the attack. Prosecutors later dropped charges against five other guards, concluding another trial would be futile.

The case led to several reforms.

At the center of the storm: Warden James Crosby, who had run the state's most notorious prison for 17 months before
Valdes died. On vacation when the death was reported, Crosby never fell under suspicion by investigators.

He emerged as a witness for the prosecution, his ever-rising career firmly intact. Two years after the death, he was promoted to a high-level supervisory post, overseeing several North Florida prisons.

State Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, the one-time prosecutor who investigated and originally filed charges against the guards, said there was never a whiff of evidence that Crosby contributed to Valdes' death or set a bad tone at the prison.

"He's kind of earned his shot in my view,'' said Smith, a Crosby friend for 25 years and vice chairman of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee.

But Crosby's ascension has inspired criticism from others with detailed knowledge of the case. They allege he set the stage for Valdes' death by turning a blind eye to a rising tide of guard violence against inmates.

"I'm appalled,'' said Guy Rubin, a Stuart lawyer who represents Valdes' estate in a federal lawsuit against Crosby, Moore, the accused guards and the Department of Corrections. ""If this is the conduct that gets promotions, I think it's a sad state of affairs in the state of . . . . He created the environment (at Florida State Prison), he looked the other way, he promoted people who were not qualified.''

Under Crosby, guards at Florida State prison conducted a ""reign of terror'' against inmates that culminated in Valdes's death, said Randall Berg Jr., executive director of the Florida Justice Institute, a law firm that handles civil rights cases.

Florida needs a reformer in the secretary's job, and Bush's pick does not fit the bill, he said. "Crosby's of the school that warehouses prisoners rather than rehabilitating them, '' Berg said. "He's from Starke; he's from that area. It's ingrained. They're never exposed to anything different.''

Crosby is keenly aware of the criticism. He recites the names of his detractors before they come up in an interview. He expresses a tinge of resentment about their image of a lumbering country boy with backwoods views on prison practices.

These are the shallow assessments of people who do not know him, he said.

With his broad-chested build and a perfectly bald head, Crosby would seem at home in the brown uniform of a Florida correctional officer. He has an approachable, folksy way, a gravely voice. He will use the word "ain't'' in office conversation. People who know him, including the governor, call him ""Jimmy.''

Such are the blue-collar traits that have led to the barbs, yet also cheer many of the state's 24,000 corrections employees. Many feel that their new boss is a colleague who comes ""from the ranks.''

But the assessment somehow misses the mark. Crosby has never been a correctional officer, never pulled a shift on a prison floor with inmates. His has been a white-collar career, starting in 1975 as a "classification specialist'' who gauged the risks presented by inmates and decided which programs best fit their needs.

In 1987, he moved up to assistant superintendent at North Florida Reception Center, the intake facility for inmates where he began his career 12 years earlier. In the 1990s, he ran five prisons at separate times, earning high marks from supervisors for his energy and problem solving.

From his earliest years in corrections, supervisors pegged Crosby as a rising star with management talent.

Crosby said last week that he has wanted the secretary's job from the moment he walked in the door. His career was perking along nicely when Valdes was killed on his watch.

He declined to discuss specifics of the case, citing pending litigation. But in interviews shortly after the death, Crosby said he questioned his officers when use-of-force reports began to increase at Florida State Prison. At the time, he said he took steps to move some of them away from ""hot spots.''

"It's one thing to question,'' said Berg, the Florida Justice Institute attorney. ""It's another thing to stop it.''

But Crosby dismisses such criticism as the work of ""inmate lawyers who are out to make money off of this.'' He said of Berg, Rubin and others: ""Consider the source.''

Even as he celebrated last week, he said he warned his parents that the news of his appointment would revive accounts of Valdes ' death.

"No one has ever been able to write anything bad that I've done,'' he said he told them. ""What they can't say is "Jimmy Crosby stole this or Jimmy Crosby beat this inmate or Jimmy Crosby violated this (policy).' And that's not bad after nearly 30 years in this business.''

He said of the Valdes related lawsuits: ""I'm very comfortable in going to court.''

Among his top priorities now are smoothing the administrative bumps left after Moore's attempts to centralize agency functions. Some decision making will be returned to prisons and the chain of command clarified, Crosby said.

Another goal is to recruit companies to build facilities on prison grounds and hire inmates to work at nominal wages. That would prepare inmates for employment after their release, Crosby said. It also would benefit the inmate serving a life sentence, he said. "He's still a human being and it gives him more meaning in his life, even if he's in prison.''

The proposal seems at odds with Berg's view that Crosby knows nothing of rehabilitation. Berg's other notion … that Florida prisons need a reformer … is not possible in the current climate, said Smith, the senator and former prosecutor.

Because of the size and cost of the system, state leaders see prisons as a public safety function, with less emphasis on rehabilitation, Smith said.

Even so, Crosby is a moderate and a pragmatist who is interested in whatever works, Smith said. ""He recognizes that most of the people in the correctional system are going to come out some day, and you hope to run a system that prepares for that.''

Smith and others say Crosby also faces a serious staffing problem amid a budget crisis. Since 1999, prison population has risen 7.2 percent while prison guard positions have declined 5.5 percent.

Before he joined corrections, Crosby graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of Florida but learned that his passion was politics.

In high school, he had joined the debate team. As a youth growing up in Starke, he distributed literature for candidates at fish fries. "All his life he has loved to argue, argue, argue,'' said his mother, Helen, Crosby, 69, who lives in Starke with her husband, James, 70. The younger Crosby, known to relatives as "Jimmy Jr.,'' will argue politics with everyone but his 92-year-old grandfather, who still hews to the family's Democratic roots.

In a county where many registered Democrats vote Republican, Crosby's slow evolution into one of North Florida's key Republican operatives began in his 20s. He once worked for a Democratic legislator, and voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. But he supported Ronald Reagan four years later. By the late 1980s, he became "a true believer in the Bush family,'' he said, starting with President George Herbert Walker Bush. He joined the Republican state executive committee in the late 1990s and was a delegate for George W. Bush at the 2000 Republican National Convention.

"He really feels like the Republicans are more like the old Democrats,'' said his mother.

Getting the job he coveted for 27 years, and having it happen around the holidays, ranks right up there for Crosby. "It was the second-best Christmas of my life,'' he said.

The best one came in 1965, when Helen and James Crosby gave their son a $150 Gibson guitar, a gift that Jimmy Jr. now says they could ill afford.

Crosby's ranking … putting his new, $110,000 job in second place … suggests he is heeding the advice of his mother, who told him last week to remember his Bradford County beginnings when he moves to Tallahassee.

"I'm staying in Bradford County, just to help him remember where he came from,'' she said. ""I'm going to keep him humble.''
… Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.