by David M. Reutter
A record number of prisoners – 356 – died while in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) in 2016. Even more died during 2017.
Topping the chart in 2016 was Dade Correctional Institution (DCI) with 13 deaths – twice the number of any other prison except Charlotte Correctional Institution, which had 7, and facilities that house elderly or ill prisoners.
DCI has been under scrutiny since the Miami Herald published an investigative report about the death of Darren Rainey, 50, a schizophrenic prisoner serving a drug-related sentence who was fatally scalded in a shower in the facility’s mental health unit on June 23, 2012 – apparently as part of a sadistic punishment by guards. [See: PLN, April 2017, p.38; Feb. 2016, p.1].
Despite a letter sent to State Attorney Katherine Frenández Rundle by advocacy group Stop Prison Abuse Now (SPAN), no official explanation has been forthcoming as to why no one was held accountable for Rainey’s death. Prosecutors announced in March 2017 that criminal charges would not be filed against prison staff.
In 2000, there were just 191 deaths among FDOC prisoners. The increase in the system’s mortality rate since then has outpaced the rise in the state’s prison population – and is higher than what other large states are experiencing. The FDOC’s death rate was 3.56 per 1,000 prisoners with a statewide prison population of almost 100,000. But Texas, which houses 146,684 prisoners, had 407 deaths in 2016 – a rate of just 2.77 per 1,000 prisoners.
What is behind the increase in deaths at FDOC facilities?
“We have a lot of violence right now, and it has to do with the level of supervision and the gang population,” stated FDOC Secretary Julie Jones. “With very rare exception, the deaths are not due to lack of due diligence or neglect,” she added.
But while prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and murders have doubled over the last six years, their numbers are not large enough to explain the increase in the mortality rate.
The FDOC is dealing with an aging prison population as a result of the elimination of parole in the vast majority of cases and a law requiring all prisoners to serve at least 85% of their sentences. The rise in the number of deaths can also be traced to 2012, which is the same year the state privatized its prison health care system. [See: PLN, June 2013, p.24].
A federal class-action suit was filed against the FDOC by Disability Rights Florida, the state’s Protection & Advocacy organization, which accused DCI guards of systematically abusing mentally-ill prisoners – including discrimination, harassment, brutality and forced starvation. It also alleged that staff employed by FDOC medical contractor Wexford Health failed to report the abuse. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.14].
“TCU is a hellhole,” former guard Julio Munroy said of DCI’s Transitional Care Unit for mentally ill prisoners.
Munroy was on duty when Anthony Vidal, 45, was murdered by another prisoner in the TCU in March 2016. He said he was fired in August 2016 for voicing his views.
“They don’t give a crap about the inmates in [TCU],” Munroy added. “The mental health treatment is a joke. I don’t understand how I can send an inmate who wants to kill himself there and five minutes later he is back in my office.”
While acknowledging some progress has been made since then in inpatient services offered at TCU, Disability Rights Florida attorney Peter Sleasman said his group still had “a lot of concerns over the level of care at the outpatient level.” With behavioral challenges that frequently result in disciplinary charges against mentally ill prisoners, they often end up in segregation and without sufficient treatment.
That puts the focus back on hiring and retaining qualified staff – a problem throughout the FDOC that is exacerbated at DCI by the paltry $31,000 average starting salary for prison guards – leading to staff shortages and high turnover that prevents employees from receiving the specialized training they need to deal with mentally ill prisoners.
Of the 13 deaths at DCI during 2016, only one was a homicide. Another four were suicides by hanging, two of which involved mentally ill prisoners. One cause of death was unavailable, but the others were due to medical problems often treated successfully with early detection outside of prison: cancer, heart disease, tuberculosis, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, gastroesophageal bleeding, hemorrhage/heart failure and mesothelioma. The average age of the 13 prisoners who died at DCI was just 48.5 years old.
Of the FDOC’s 356 total deaths in 2016, four were homicides, 10 were suicides, nine were accidents and five were from complications of HIV. The remaining 328 were split between cancer (88 deaths) and other medical issues (240 deaths). That record number of prisoner deaths was surpassed in 2017 when at least 400 Florida prisoners died, according to preliminary mortality data posted on the FDOC’s website.
Sources: Miami Herald, www.dc.state.fl.us
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