Will Lawsuits and Exposés Lead to Reform of Florida’s Brutal Prisons?
Florida’s prisons have become notorious for their abuse and neglect of the people in their care. Now, as per an agreement between the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) and Disability Rights Florida, the state will be overhauling its system of treatment for people with mental illness at the Dade Correctional Institution (Dade CI), located just south of Homestead, which houses the prison system’s largest mental health facility.
Disability Rights Florida filed a lawsuit against the DOC following a series of articles published by the Miami Herald during their in-depth investigation over the past year. According to the Herald, individuals in the Transitional Care Unit (TCU) at Dade CI were subjected to various abusive forms of punishment by guards, such as being locked into showers rigged to reach a temperature of 180 degrees, being forced to fight one another for the staff’s entertainment, and being given food that contained laxatives and even urine. A group nicknamed “The Diet Shift” allegedly gave out empty trays on a routine basis, in order to starve the people in their custody.
Perhaps the most notable case of abuse is Darren Rainey. On June 23, 2012, Rainey, who was serving two years for cocaine possession and suffered from severe schizophrenia, was allegedly locked in a scalding hot shower while Officer Cornelius Thompson, Officer Roland Clark and other guards taunted him. Rainey begged to be let out and after approximately two hours, he was dead. According to the Inspector General’s report, issued exactly two months later, the cause of Rainey’s death had not been determined. Surveillance video was available, but the shower was not visible from the camera’s angle. In addition, the disc was damaged while being viewed in Windows Media Player. The report indicated that a new copy of the video had been requested.
Harold Hempstead, who is currently serving time for burglary, was an orderly at Dade’s TCU when Rainey died. Hempstead kept a diary detailing Rainey’s death, as well as other suspicious deaths and instances of abuse by corrections officers. After filing several complaints that led to no disciplinary action, Hempstead turned to the Miami Herald. His journal is now in the hands of investigators.
On September 11, 2013, Richard S. Mair, who was serving time for second-degree murder, hanged himself in his cell. He left behind a suicide note detailing the abuses he witnessed at Dade Correctional, include Rainey’s death. Five days before his suicide, Mair also sent a letter to Governor Rick Scott’s Chief Inspector General, Melinda Miguel, who turned the investigation over to DOC inspector Michael Meaney. After just a month of investigation, Meaney closed the case based on the fact that Mair was “unavailable for a follow-up” interview.
Other incarcerated people have made similar allegations. Disability Rights Florida found evidence that others were subjected to scalding hot showers, among other abuses, that guards often targeted the most severely mentally ill and that medical staff failed to report the abuses. According to the Miami Herald, former counselor Harriet Krzykowski stated that she suspected that security staff was abusing and starving people in custody. Krzykowski was told that “she might find herself alone in a dorm full of violent inmates with no officers to protect her” if she reported abuse. She also claimed that in order to cover-up these incidents, corrections officers fabricated reports so that prisoners would be deemed the aggressors.
DOC Inspector General Jeffery Beasley has been accused of covering up many of the DOC’s various alleged abuses. The state began investigating Beasley personally after four of his employees accused him of pressuring them to minimize cases that might give the agency a “black eye.”
As part of the agreement with Disability Rights Florida, the state has begun evaluating the facility and implementing reforms. Some of the reforms include Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) for all security staff members, the addition of an assistant warden and ombudsmen to oversee mental health programs, and the installation and upgrade of additional audio/video cameras.
“Through enhanced training opportunities for staff and the continued development of comprehensive solutions to issues posed by a growing population of mentally ill inmates, the department will continue to expand and enhance our mental health capabilities,” said DOC spokesman McKinley Lewis.
Peter Sleasman, with Florida Institutional Legal Services, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of Disability Rights Florida, has said that his group is investigating other TCUs around the state. According to ThinkProgress, the state was investigating the questionable deaths of 10 individuals in July of 2014.
Darren Rainey’s cause of death has still not been determined. His family filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and Corizon, the facility’s private healthcare contractor at the time, alleging that “the FDOC knew about widespread abuse by correctional officers upon inmates with mental illness” and that “staff employed by Corizon had knowledge of the abuse by correctional officers.” According to the lawsuit, over 90 percent of Rainey’s body was burned.
In January 2015, state Senator Greg Evers, Chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, filed a 40-page amendment to SB 2070. The bill, based on a proposal made by Senator Rob Bradley, would have weakened Governor Scott’s power over the Department of Corrections by requiring approval for his future DOC appointments by an independently elected Cabinet. The bill would have also created a Florida Corrections Commission (FCC) to investigate allegations of abuse and corruption. The Commission’s nine members would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Finally, SB 2070 would mandate investigations of DOC staff members who used inappropriate force against prisoners, require private healthcare contractors to carry liability insurance for medical care that causes harm to patients, and prevent retaliation against whistleblowers. However, after going back and forth between the Senate and the House, the bill ultimately died in the House.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently opened a criminal investigation into Rainey’s death, as well as other allegations of Eighth Amendment violations, at the urging of Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida and the Florida Council of Churches. Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, called for “a change in the culture in Florida prisons.” He followed up by stating, “[T]hat is not going to happen until officials are routinely held accountable for the brutality that too often characterizes our state prison system.”
This article was originally published by Solitary Watch (www.solitarywatch.com) on June 18, 2015; it is reprinted with permission, with minor edits.