‘He’s constantly going to live in fear.’ Spared execution, Cruz faces hellish life in prison

Had Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz been sent to Florida’s Death Row, his daily life while awaiting execution would not have been easy. But he would have enjoyed certain comforts: his own cell, meals delivered three times a day, clean clothes and towels brought to him, and no requirement to work.

But after he’s sentenced to life in state prison next month, his existence behind bars looms as dreadful and possibly violent.

When he’s eventually assigned to live among a prison’s population, corrections experts say, Cruz will likely have a cellmate, be ordered to perform a prison job and be forced to interact with other inmates at meal times and in a recreation yard. He’ll have to navigate the alien and often-violent social hierarchy of prison life — complicated by his notoriety as a mass murderer and history of mental-health disorders.

“I have never in my career encountered anybody like him in terms of his incredible lack of social skills and his incredible lack of how to read a social situation. Those are the skills that someone needs to navigate the very difficult social world, and day-to-day life in the Florida Department of Corrections,” said Heather Holmes, a South Florida forensic psychologist who interviewed Cruz 12 times as part of her work with his defense team.

“He’s going to be taken advantage of. He’s going to have things taken from him — his food, his socks, his shoes. And he’s 125 pounds. He might know how to pull a trigger but he does not know how to fight.”

Cruz, 24, won’t be remanded to the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections until after he is officially sentenced Nov. 1 for fatally shooting 14 students and three educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. The stunning rampage was Florida’s deadliest school shooting.

Last year, he pleaded guilty to 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder, setting up the “penalty phase” trial in which 12 jurors considered only two options: the death penalty, or life in prison without the possibility of word.

READ MORE: After Parkland shooter gets life verdict, what’s next for the death penalty in Florida?

During the nearly three-month trial, Broward prosecutors painted Cruz as a calculated killer who longed for the notoriety of becoming a school shooter, planned his attack carefully and methodically gunned down his victims, at times returning to finish off wounded students inside the freshman building . The Broward Public Defender’s Office argued Cruz should be spared because, among many reasons, he was mentally ill and suffered brain damage in the womb of a hard-drinking biological mother.

Cruz will be sentenced after relatives of the dead are given a chance to speak to the judge on Nov. 1. His prison term is a done deal. Legally, Broward Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer cannot reverse the jury’s decision, and prosecutors have said they are not seeking to overturn the verdict.

During closing arguments, Assistant Public Defender Melisa McNeill suggested that Cruz’s life behind bars would end by natural causes or “whatever else could possibly happen to him in prison.” After last Thursday’s verdict, many frustrated family members said they hoped as much.

“He’s going to have to look over his shoulder every second for the rest of his life,” said Linda Schulman, the mother of slain teacher Scott Beigel. “He should live in fear.”

Ilan and Lori Alhadeff react as they hear that their daughter’s murderer will not receive the death penalty as the verdicts are announced in the trial of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022. The Alhadeffs’ daughter, Alyssa, was killed in the 2018 shootings. Cruz, who pleaded guilty to 17 counts of premeditated murder in the 2018 shootings, is the most lethal mass shooter to stand trial in the US He was previously sentenced to 17 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole for 17 additional counts of attempted murder for the students he injured that day.

Protective custody?

After he’s sentenced, Cruz will be sent to the South Florida Reception Center, a facility where inmates are held briefly while prison officials determine his particular needs — like mental-health treatment and educational needs — and the availability of beds at facilities across the state. While there, Cruz will likely be placed in administrative confinement for his own safety.

DOC declined to comment on Cruz’s future behind bars, pointing to a Miami Herald reporter to an inmate “orientation” handbook published online.

Whatever prison he winds up in, experts say, Cruz likely won’t go into the general population right away, given the high-profile nature of his crimes. Instead, he’ll probably be placed in what’s known as “protective management” along with other at-risk inmates such as child molesters, prisoners who have been threatened over debts, or even ex-police officers.

In “PM” as it’s known, inmates are expected to work — maybe in the library, cleaning bathrooms or as an orderly in a medical department. They would share a cell with another inmate. The cell would be connected to a common area watched over by a corrections officer.

If Cruz ends up in protective management, it may only last a few months, maybe up to a year. “Whatever it takes to let things cool down, and he would then be eased into the general population,” said Ron McAndrew, a former Florida prison warden who now serves as an expert witness on the corrections system.

Ron McAndrew

Ron McAndrew

Even in protective management, Cruz would still interact with other inmates who might target him.

That’s what happened in 2017, with convicted child molester Ryan Mason, whose father said he was in protective custody at the Wakulla Correctional Institute Annex. Another inmate, Scottie Dean Allen, found out why he was behind bars and strangled him. Allen is now on Florida’s Death Row.

“Sometimes those in protective custody prey on others in protective custody,” said Raul S. Banasco, another corrections expert and former Florida prison warden.

Violence is not uncommon in most prisons in the United States. And Florida’s prison system has long been plagued by shoddy and violent conditions for inmates as well as abusive behavior by corrections officers — issues officials have long vowed to fix.

READ MORE: ‘It was torture’: Florida inmate left to starve and die after officers broke his neck

General Population

In general population, Cruz would likewise have a cellmate and be made to work up to 60 hours a week. He may go to the recreation yard, where inmates walk, play basketball or just get sun. He might spend time in the “day room,” where inmates watch television — usually sports, nothing controversial — on benches with no seat backs.

His reputation will proceed him.

Secrets are hard to keep in prison. Inmates watch TV and can get emails, watch movies and get information from individual tablets they can pay to use. Officers themselves won’t hesitate to tell inmates what other inmates are in for.

Abraham Rosado, 40, who served 12 years in Florida prison, recalled an officer putting a newspaper article about a new inmate — who’d been convicted of child molestation — on an employee bulletin board, one that could be seen by prisoners. The new inmate was beaten mercilessly by other inmates.

“They are going to want to f–k him up,” Rosado said of Cruz. “If he’s in general population, he’ll have a really hard time with the other inmates and the officers will turn a blind eye to it.”

He added: “He’s constantly going to live in fear.”

In a society where inmates often stick to their own ethnic or racial groups, Cruz—who is white and was fixed on swastikas before his arrest—could find some friendly protection from white supremacist gang members. But most friendships come with strings because Cruz has inheritance money and a brother who might fill his commissary account with funds.

“There’s going to be a guy, 6-foot-3 and muscular, who is gonna say, ‘I’ll put you under my wing,’” said McAndew. “He’ll have a daddy. It can’t be avoided.”

Said Rosado: “Without a doubt, they’ll try to get him to use his money to buy drugs. If he’s providing drugs and cellphones, cigarettes, he might be OK.”

There’s another, grimmer place that could end up hosting Cruz.

If he refuses to work, gets caught smuggling in contraband or lashes out — like he did when he attacked a Broward Sheriff’s deputy six months after his arrest — Cruz could be assigned to a “close management” wing at facilities such as Santa Rosa, Charlotte or Union.

That’s where the worst of the worst are housed, sometimes for years on end.

There, inmates are housed in single cells, with no access to tablets and few books and no visitation from outside visitors, said McAndrew. Exercise is limited to an hour in an outside cage where inmates can bounce a ball and get natural sunlight. There are three levels of close management restrictions, with the least restrictive allowing for some work and access to a day room.

“It’s very punitive,” McAndrew said. “In my experience, it’s very effective and that helps the Department of Corrections.”

Even in a close management facility, violence can befall inmates.

In 2019, William Edward Wells III, known as the “Mayport Monster,” was at Florida State Prison and serving life in prison for six murders under close management. He’d repeatedly complained that on close management, he didn’t have access to simple things like coffee — so he wanted to get to Death Row, according to court records.

He finally did enough, strangling inmate Billy Chapman inside a “secure but unsupervised” day room for close management inmates, records show.

Wells, unlike Cruz, is now on Death Row.

Miami Herald reporter Charles Rabin contributed to this report.

Leave a Comment