Amid reports of deadly abuses by staff, Florida prisons boss announces changes

08/20/2014 5:58 AM

08/20/2014 2:54 PM

Following months of damaging news stories, Florida’s prison chief on Wednesday announced a series of system-wide reforms designed to improve transparency and provide better training in the handling of mentally ill inmates.

Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews called the changes “a huge first step” — the reforms include special training for corrections officers and having outside investigators handle prison deaths. Crews also vowed to create a more-professional atmosphere within Florida’s 100,000-inmate prison system, even as he insisted that the vast majority of prison employees perform their jobs honorably.

“Ninety-nine percent of them...they do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do,” Crews said.

Crews’ Wednesday morning news conference left some questions unanswered. There is still no conclusion to a Miami-Dade police investigation into the case of 50-year-old Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate who died more than two years ago at Dade Correctional Institution.

Crews told reporters that Miami-Dade police plan to meet with prosecutors and the medical examiner’s office later this week regarding the Rainey case, but it is unclear whether that means police are close to wrapping up their investigation.

According to other inmates at the Dade Correctional, located south of Homestead, Rainey had angered guards by defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up. As punishment, guards allegedly locked him in a brutally hot shower and left him there until he collapsed and died. Crews said Wednesday that both guards involved in the 2012 incident are no longer in the prison system, but that’s because they resigned — neither was fired.

Crews said the two men weren’t fired because the investigation into the incident wasn’t finished, and there was the possibility that some employees were being wrongfully accused.

“We had the allegations, but we try to make our decisions based on fact,” Crews said.

Asked about the multiple prison inmates who made written complaints about the circumstances of Rainey’s death — and were ignored — Crews denied that his department has been indifferent to an inmate’s suffering.

“It’s not cultural,” Crews said. “It’s easy to think that, when you have eight, 10, whatever the number is of criminal investigations going on in an agency right now, but I can tell you it is a handful and they are the minority in our department going foward.”

As part of the package of reforms being implemented, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will now investigate all prison deaths that are not from natural causes. Crews said there are 82 of those cases currently being looked at, but he could not provide more details as why these prisoners are dying. He did say that, starting five weeks ago, there is a new procedure where the warden of a prison will call him directly to discuss any prison deaths, and that more information will be available as the department discusses those deaths with FDLE. The goal, he said, is “to make sure that a death is never routine.”

According to Crews, the department will also:

• Expand its crisis intervention training for corrections officers “so they don’t unintentionally escalate an incident or hurt an individual with our use-of-force techniques.”
• Develop specialized reentry centers for inmates who suffer from mental illness. One will be at Everglades Correctional in Miami-Dade, which was the site of Wednesday’s news conference.
• Create a “transparency database” for disseminating information on inmates who die in the custody of the department.

Steven Wetstein, a member of the Stop Prison Abuse Now advocacy group, attended Crews’ news conference and said he was glad to see that the department is promising action. But Wetstein’s group still wants United States Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Rainey’s death. Wetstein added that tough talk from Crews doesn’t guarantee that things will actually change.

“We’ve seen abuses, and unnecessary deaths, and we just have to see what actually occurs, rather than simply what’s said,” Wetstein said.

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