The top guns at the Dade Correctional Institution, the Department of Corrections and its inspector general’s office didn’t get the memo from the state Department of Children & Families: When someone in your care dies a horrific death at the hands of caretakers, you don’t go on information lockdown.
You don’t dismiss complaints of abuse, torture and sexual violation just because they come from an inmate.
You don’t take at face value that a psychotherapist who reported a vicious beating was fired by the private contractor for which he worked for taking long lunch breaks.
You don’t say with a straight face, as the inspector general’s office did, that the security camera that could have shed light on how a mentally ill inmate was scalded to death, locked in a blazing hot shower — whoops! — malfunctioned just after a corrections officer put the inmate in the stall.
This week, the Herald’s Julie K. Brown exposed in excruciating detail just one horrific death, that of Darren Rainey, allegedly at the hands of guards who find it fun to brutalize mentally ill inmates. But, according to three former staffers who worked in the psychiatric unit, corrections officers have, for years gotten away with abuse, torture and, possibly, murder.
However, this abomination is symptomatic of Florida’s deeper problem of keeping mentally ill inmates in jail, rather than giving them treatment as they pay their debt to society. But if past behavior is any indication, Florida’s not about to do what makes the most sense. As Miami-Dade County Court Judge Steve Leifman pointed out on the Herald’s Other Views page this week: “Florida ranks 49th nationally in funding for community mental-health treatment. . . . The cost to taxpayers to house them is nearly $1 billion annually.”
Mentally ill people are the fastest growing subpopulation in Florida prisons. During the past 14 years, it ballooned an astounding 178 percent — 6,800 in the year 2000; almost 18,000 today — while the general prison population grew by about 50 percent. Prisons and jails are inappropriate places to put people suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression.
Meanwhile, in the face of documented inhumanity by corrections officers and confronted with the scalding death of one inmate and the supposed suicide of another, the Department of Corrections and the Dade Correctional Institution have, basically, crawled under a rock.
The Miami-Dade Police Department is investigating Rainey’s death. Culpable guards should be tried and, if convicted, sent to prison. The Department of Corrections says that it can’t conduct its own administrative review until the police probe is through. But given the department’s lack of anything that approaches outrage at what has happened, much less any sense of culpability, Gov. Rick Scott should, instead, bring in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate. Corrections has lost all credibility here.
A decade ago, Miami-Dade State Attorney Kathy Fernandez Rundle issued a grand jury report, Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System: A recipe for disaster / A prescription for improvement. It includes: “It was estimated that half of the arrests might have been avoided by taking mentally ill persons in crisis to a receiving facility instead of to the jail.”
Clearly, Florida has the “disaster” part down cold. Who — Gov. Scott, state lawmakers, the U.S. Department of Justice — will step up and insist upon “improvement?”