Jailhouse Rumble

If racial strife and political bickering were crimes, the entire staff of Dade County's corrections department would be locked up

For twelve years Charles Felton had not smoked. He'd quit cold. Quit forever, he told himself. Never again would he light up a cigarette and invite demon nicotine into his body.

Then in October 1993 he went to work for Dade County, and within a few months of taking over as director of the Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, Felton realized that an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and emphysema was the least of his worries. Two and a half years later, the 52-year-old Felton sits in the smoking section of Don Shula's All Star Cafe, extinguishing a cigarette butt with one hand while reaching for his pack of Marlboros with the other. "I really should try and quit again," he says between table-rattling fits of coughing.

Now, however, is not the time.
Like the haze of cigarette smoke surrounding him, a cloud of a different sort now hangs over Felton. He is a director without a department, a leader with no one to lead. Six months ago County Manager Armando Vidal "reassigned" him from his command post in West Dade to an unused office on the 29th floor of County Hall following allegations he had misused county money to furnish his home with office equipment. "The whole thing was politically and not substantively motivated," he charges.

Felton acknowledges he spent $2538 to purchase a desk, three chairs, a file cabinet, a 27-inch television set, and a VCR for his Pembroke Pines home. He told investigators he believed the items had been approved, noting that former county manager Joaquin Avi*o told him he could set up a home office with a computer and a fax machine, and he assumed that furniture was part of the package. This past December the Dade State Attorney's Office cleared Felton of any criminal wrongdoing, but Vidal refuses to reinstate his corrections chief. Two audits of the corrections department are still pending, and Vidal says that until those are complete Felton will remain in administrative limbo -- temporarily assigned to a low-profile project -- while collecting his $113,000 annual salary.

Stubbing out another cigarette, Felton is barely able to contain his anger. "There was no desire to give me the benefit of the doubt," he huffs.

And he's right.
Charles Felton's problems have virtually nothing to do with a desk and a couple of chairs. They have even less to do with a pair of pending audits, which are so commonplace that Felton may well be the only department head ever removed while they were being conducted.

Instead Felton's current predicament is the result of Dade County's peculiarly vicious brand of politics, intensified in a department so torn by employee antagonisms that it would probably be better off if the inmates ran the place. No other county bureaucracy is as racially and ethnically divided -- and manipulated -- as corrections, held hostage as it is by warring factions claiming to be advocacy groups but which in fact are little more than instruments of sedition.

As director, Felton ultimately must take responsibility for some of that chaos, but much of it existed long before he arrived, and will almost certainly remain after he's gone. There still might be a last-minute reprieve for Felton, but the odds do not seem to be in his favor. Like any condemned man, all he can do now is stare at the clock and fire up another cigarette.

Felton could have done more to help his cause. When the controversy surrounding his home office became public, he managed to annoy his bosses further by using on-duty corrections officers and inmate labor to return the furniture to the county. Stupid. But it was in keeping with Felton's presumptive manner and his lack of appreciation for how his actions are perceived by others.

As the State Attorney's investigation into the purchase noted, Felton's conduct wasn't illegal, but it did show a level of "fiscal insensitivity" that was unbecoming a county official. Similarly, Felton was among those cited in a New Times investigation last year for running up exorbitant bills on his county-issued cellular telephone with long-distance calls to family and friends.

He came to Dade County believing he had all the answers when he didn't even understand the questions. He was far too sure of himself, and came across to those around him as cocky and arrogant. But when understood in the context of his career and accomplishments, Felton's attitude was not without justification. He was born in Mississippi Delta country but grew up in Nebraska, where his father worked in an Omaha packing house slaughtering hogs and cattle. His father died when the boy was just ten years old, and his mother singlehandedly raised him and his five brothers and sisters. Evidently she instilled in him an intense drive to succeed.

Felton graduated from the University of Nebraska, then went on to obtain a master's degree in social services from the prestigious program at the University of Chicago. He began his career in corrections in 1968 as a juvenile probation officer. By 1973 he was named warden of the state penitentiary at Joliet, Illinois. He was only 29 and was dubbed by inmates and the media "the baby warden." Within a few years, he was appointed superintendent of the sprawling Cook County jails.

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