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Ex-Florida prison boss: Drunken orgies tainted system

  • Story Highlights
  • Former head of Florida's prisons says orgies were common before he arrived
  • James McDonough also says the system was run like the mafia
  • "They were like frat boys out of control," McDonough tells CNN
  • His predecessor is currently in prison after pleading guilty to bribery charges
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From Abbie Boudreau and Scott Zamost
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TALLAHASSEE, Florida (CNN) -- Softball, drunken orgies and a prison system run like the mafia. That's what Florida's former prison secretary says he inherited when he took over one of the nation's largest prison systems two years ago.


This house, on prison grounds in Florida, is described as a party house where prison officials held orgies.

In fact, on his first day on the job, James McDonough says he walked into his office -- the same one his predecessor used -- and there was crime scene tape preventing anyone from entering.

"That was an indication we had a problem in the department," McDonough told CNN in an exclusive interview before he stepped down last Thursday.

McDonough revealed a startling list of alleged abuses and crimes going on inside Florida's prisons:

• Top prison officials admitting to kickbacks;

• Guards importing and selling steroids in an effort to give them an edge on the softball field;

• Taxpayer funds to pay for booze and women;

• Guards who punished other guards who threatened to report them.

"Corruption had gone to an extreme," McDonough said, saying it all began at the top. "They seemed to be drunk half the time and had orgies the other half, when they weren't taking money and beating each other up." Video Watch a corrupted prison system »

He added, "Women were treated like chattel in this department."

McDonough described a bizarre prison culture among those that ran the system -- one that he says seemed obsessed with inter-department softball games and the orgies after games.

"I cannot explain how big an obsession softball had become," he said. "People were promoted on the spot after a softball game at the drunken party to high positions in the department because they were able to hit a softball out of the park a couple times."

"The connection between the softball and the parties and the corruption and the beatings was greatly intertwined."

The parties and orgies were often carried out at a waterfront ranch house built on prison grounds for a former warden with taxpayer dollars, McDonough said. The house was complete with a bar, pool table and hot tub. Photo See photos of the "party house" »

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McDonough is a former Army colonel who commanded troops in Vietnam and Africa. He served as Florida's drug czar before taking on the job as the head of Florida's prison system, which oversees 90,000 inmates.

He left his post last Thursday as secretary of Florida's Department of Corrections because, he says, he feels he has cleaned up the corruption. It's time, he said, "to turn this over to law and order people that have made this their life's goal."

A Brooklyn, New York, native, McDonough says he witnessed the way the mafia worked in his youth and it provided him a keen insight into how his prison predecessor, James Crosby, operated.

"It reminded me of the petty mafia I saw on the streets of Brooklyn when I was growing up in the late 1950s, early 1960s -- petty, small-minded, thugish, violent, dangerous, outside the law, and completely intolerable for a society such as ours in the United States of America," he said.

Crosby would later plead guilty to bribery charges in relation to kickbacks from a prison vendor. He's now locked up in a federal prison. He refused CNN's request for an interview for this report.

"He's serving time in a federal prison. I hope he reforms and gets out and prospers," McDonough said.

He added, "When you have a rotten guy at the top, or gal at the top, it can be very invasive, and it's a cancer that needs to be excised."

And getting rid of this "cancer" is exactly what McDonough says he did. McDonough fired 90 top prison officials -- wardens, supervisors, colonels and majors -- claiming they were corrupt or, at the very least, not to be trusted. He demoted 280 others.

Criminal charges were filed against more than 40 others, and most were convicted. In addition to the orgies and other misconduct outside the cell blocks, there were other allegations of prisoners being harmed, McDonough said.

"In some of the pockets of corruption that we found, they [prisoners] were being abused," he said.

Among those arrested were seven officers accused of beating inmates, including five accused of forcing a prisoner to drink toilet water. All have pleaded not guilty.

Tina Hayes, the director of the prison's department initiatives who has worked in the prison system for 28 years, said the atmosphere before McDonough arrived was "a little tense" with workers "always on edge."

She said employees who didn't attend softball games or play on the teams were "isolated" and "pushed aside."

"I used to tell staff day in and day out: Keep your head high; do what's right; you know what morally is right; you've got some ethics; don't bow down to it," Hayes told CNN.

McDonough, she said, brought "standards back into the department."

"People can speak out now without being afraid to say what they need to say."


McDonough says the majority of the prison system's 28,000 employees were honest, hard-working people who weren't corrupt at all. But he says many of the top prison officials weren't and he believes he has weeded out "an organized vein of corruption."

"They were like frat boys out of control." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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