In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Brutality against mentally ill inmates has become the norm

Dying became Darren Rainey's revenge.

Dying in a scalding prison shower was the perfect act of defiance against his torturers and the institution that abided their cruelties.

After all, he wasn't supposed to die. He was only supposed to suffer the excruciating punishment that guards at Dade Correctional Institution enjoy inflicting on mentally disturbed inmates.

He was only supposed to scream in pain, locked inside a steaming shower closet, the hot water tap jammed open, inescapable torrents of searing water pouring over his body until his skin blistered like burnt meat.

That’s all that was supposed to happen. An hour later, according to the house rules of this perverse sport, Rainey should have gone back to his cell in whimpering acquiescence.

Rainey broke the rules. He died, perhaps the only reprisal available to a mentally ill prisoner subjected to mistreatment in a state lockup. What else would have gotten the outside world's attention? Who would have believed some bewildered crazy guy raving that he had been tortured on the psychiatric cell block? The guards would just call him a delusional, demented liar. The prison bosses would have ignored him.

Death, however, is tough to refute.

Not that the Florida Department of Corrections hasn't pretended that Rainey's death had no relationship to sadistic acts committed by DCI guards. Nor has the Miami-Dade medical examiner or the Miami-Dade Police homicide investigators shown much interest in exploring the 50-year-old inmate's demise. He died on June 23, 2012. The medical examiner has not yet submitted autopsy findings. One year, 11 months and two days since that brutal death, and still no autopsy.

The ME claims to be waiting on the police. The homicide cops explain they can't crank up their investigation until they get the autopsy. The Florida Department of Corrections promised it would reopen its own inquiry once the medical examiner and the police finish their investigation.

Rainey's death might have faded into an oblivion of bureaucratic buck-passing were it not for a convicted burglar named Harold Hempstead, an inmate-orderly on the cell block that day who filed a number of complaints with the DOC's inspector general. Hempstead described the dying man's incessant screaming. He also reported other routine abuses.

Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown not only talked to Hempstead, but discovered three former DCI employees who verified the systematic abuse that guards inflict on the psychiatric unit. One current employee told her that, indeed, the scalding shower treatment was a common punishment.

And there was the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice by George Mallinckrodt, a psychotherapist who worked in the psych unit from 2008 to 2011. He stated that guards “taunted, tormented, abused, beat and tortured chronically mentally ill inmates on a regular basis.”

Mallinckrodt told Julie Brown that he had complained to the warden at DCI, then to the Department of Corrections, but never received a response. Instead, he was fired (he was told) for taking lunch breaks that were too long. He finally turned to the Department of Justice and recounted what he knew of the death of Darren Rainey and other ghastly mistreatments on the psychiatric cell block.

Last September, another inmate in that horror ward inflicted more vengeance on the lockup regime. Richard Mair, 40, hung himself from the air-conditioning vent in his cell after penning a suicide note to his shorts: “Life sucks and then you die, but just before I go, I’m going to expose everyone for who and what they are.” He described a litany of abuses guards heap on the inmates.

Not that the DOC paid Mair's note much more mind than Rainey's death.

When Julie Brown sought out public records in connection with incidents at the DCI psych block, she was stonewalled or given reports so heavily redacted with black markers that they were nearly nonsensical. Though I suspect, given the department's willful determination not to find out anything untoward, the redacted stuff wouldn't be all that enlightening.

DOC and the cops seemed to accept that a video disc with images the security camera captured on the cell block the day Darren Rainey died just happened to have been damaged at the opportune moment. “A new disc has been requested,” the DOC inspector general noted in his report. That was dated Aug. 23, 2012. We're still waiting.

My initial inclination was to write about Darren Rainey as a tragic example of a perverse, cruel and expensive system that eliminates state mental hospital beds and underfunds community treatment programs in favor of warehousing the mentally ill in jails and prisons. In Florida, we toss five mentally ill inmates behind bars for every patient secured in a state mental hospital. Perhaps the prison system, forced to deal with the fallout of a desiccated mental health system, is doomed to fail.

But how can prison guards, no matter how overwhelmed or ill trained for dealing with the mentally ill, be excused for the abuse and deaths of uncomprehending and delusional prisoners in their custody? Though their bosses in the Department of Corrections certainly seem willing to give sadism a pass.

It seemed even more so Thursday, when a 36-year-old mentally ill inmate at Charlotte Correctional Institution near Punta Gorda died after an altercation with guards. His was the second such death on the CCI psychiatric cell block in the last six weeks.

Of course, this is a national disgrace, not just a Florida problem. Across the country, an estimated 356,268 people with mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are in prisons and jails, compared with just 35,000 in state hospitals. The New York Daily News reported last week that a mentally ill inmate had died in the city lockup on Riker's Island last fall after he had been tossed into an overheated solitary confinement cell and left unattended for seven days, deprived of his meds and decompensating into a confused muddle, and left to wallow in his own filth. He was dead of sepsis before a guard bothered to check on him. Variations of the same story pop up all across the country.

A study released in March by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff's Association, whose members have become the nation's reluctant warders of the mentally ill, indicated that the number of state mental hospital beds in proportion to the national population has fallen to what it was in 1850. It's as if we're regressing back to medieval tenets for dealing with the mentally ill. Back to the dark ages when it was acceptable to torment and torture and kill those befuddled souls deemed to be lunatics.

But no. We're not regressing. Torment and torture and kill? We’re already there.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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