Four months after reaching an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice over a series of civil-rights violations at Miami-Dade County jails, the corrections department is again under fire, this time for a series of inmate deaths and security breaches.
Standing before county commission members of the public safety and animal services committee for a little over an hour Wednesday, Corrections Department Director Tim Ryan was questioned about eight inmate deaths from various medical ailments over the past five months, and a pair of incidents in which electronic doors mysteriously unlocked, freeing hardened criminals from their cells.
On Monday, Joseph Wilner, 59 — who was jailed for driving with a suspended license — was found unresponsive in his cell on the notorious ninth-floor psychiatric ward. He died later at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Seven others — Jose Leon, Juan Carlos Matos, Joaquin Cairo, Gerard Thomas Kenny, Ricardo Monzon, Carl Dixon, and Albert Hightower — have died from different ailments since March.
Last week an inmate complained that a rodent bit him in the testicles, causing blood loss. County officials said they could not verify the incident without an investigation. A county attorney at Wednesday’s meeting worried about potential lawsuits, warning speakers to proceed with caution.
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“A lot of the things we are seeing in the news have to be disturbing,” said Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo. “When somebody goes into our jail and dies in our jail, that’s a great concern.”
Bovo also mentioned a June 14th security breach at Turner Gilford Knight Correctional Center caught on videotape that made national news. On the video, two inmates pop out of their cells immediately after the electronic doors are unlocked, with one of the inmates handing off or receiving a weapon from another inmate. Moments later four inmates confront a man named Kenneth Williams, who escaped from the men by jumping over a second-floor railing to the ground. Williams, a gang member who is charged with threatening a witness in a drug and murder trial, broke his back and an ankle.
The county is investigating how the “group release” feature in the jail’s new computerized security system was triggered.
“Literally, the inmates were running the asylum,” said Bovo.
In April the county agreed to a long and expensive list of ways to improve its treatment of inmates, ending a five-year DOJ investigation brought on by deplorable jail conditions and harsh treatment of people with mental health issues. The county agreed to build a mental-health treatment facility for inmates that could cost as much as $16 million. It also agreed to a $6 million electronic jail management system, and to spend additional millions training corrections employees. DOJ continues to monitor county jails.
Bovo, worried about another round of federal oversight, said if correction’s issues aren’t addressed soon, “somebody else is going to force us to address it, and we’re not going to like it.”
Commissioner Audrey Edmonson said she would call for an investigation by the county’s inspector general.
Miami-Dade Corrections is the eighth largest jail system in the U.S., with an average daily population of close to 5,000 inmates. Its yearly budget is almost $300 million.
Ryan, who’s been at the department’s helm for more than six years, began his presentation reading off a list of accomplishments since DOJ launched its investigation in 2008. Ryan was cut off by committee chairwoman Sally Heyman, who said she wasn’t interested in hearing about tests done on a yearly basis.
“I just want to know if we’re safe or not,” Heyman said.
“We believe we have a safe and secure environment,” Ryan responded.
The director said financial restraints have kept the department from completing construction of new buildings called for in a 2008 study. He said holes near and around “water closets” where there appears to be the largest concentration of rodents have been sealed. He also claimed that the number of recent deaths was not out of line from past years, saying there were 19 in 2007 just after he arrived, and 10 in 2012.
“Jails are a very difficult environment and we all recognize that,” said Ryan. “Are we perfect? Absolutely not.”
Commissioner Bruno Barreiro suggested corrections could save money that could be used for training and inmate care by not building fancy, new expensive facilities. Barreiro suggested that could be done taking a cue from cities that have “cookie cutter jails” with the toughest inmates and the fewest incidents.
Heyman went further, suggesting that about $140 million could be cut from the corrections budget if inmates are not jailed for minor crimes like trespassing and driving with a suspended license. She also called for the mayor to create a policy that would keep immigrants on a federal hold from being held in county jails.
“I’m not demanding perfection, I’m seeking better,” Heyman said. “The current operation borders on problematic — that’s as polite as I can be.”