The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has begun a criminal investigation into the death of Darren Rainey, the 50-year-old inmate who was locked in a shower that had been converted into a scalding torture chamber at Dade Correctional Institution.
The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of Florida also are questioning witnesses in connection with alleged atrocities in the prison’s mental health ward, including a practice of starving inmates so severely that they would snap off sprinkler-heads, flooding their cells and violating fire codes, so they would be arrested and sent to the county jail, where they would be fed.
Rainey’s death nearly three years ago, along with subsequent stories about rampant inmate abuse as well as a record number of deaths in Florida’s prisons, has spawned demands for an overhaul of the Florida Department of Corrections. The agency’s inspector general, Jeffery Beasley, has been accused of trying to whitewash suspicious deaths, medical neglect cases and corruption. He himself is the subject of a state investigation after four of his subordinates stated under oath this year that he asked them to sideline cases that would give the agency “a black eye.’’
For more than a year, the Miami Herald has investigated claims, interviewed witnesses and reviewed hundreds of records from current and former inmates and staff at Dade Correctional, located on the edge of the Everglades south of Homestead. Alleged abuses included sexual assaults by officers against inmates, racially motivated beatings and the withholding of food from inmates in one wing of the mental health ward.
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Inmates nicknamed a group of guards “the Diet Shift’’ because members routinely gave certain inmates empty food trays. Prisoners interviewed by the Herald described pervasive physical and mental abuse by officers, who threatened them with further abuse if they filed complaints.
Inmates also reported that guards would shut off their water and take away their toilet paper so they had no means to clean themselves.
One inmate, Richard Mair, committed suicide in September 2013 by hanging himself, leaving a note filled with detailed stories of alleged corruption and assaults by officers. Five days before his death, the inmate, who had been serving a life sentence, sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott and his chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, that contained many of the same allegations. Miguel’s office forwarded it to Beasley, who assigned an inspector to investigate, records show.
But in a single-page report submitted to Miguel one month after Mair’s suicide, the investigator determined that the issues Mair raised had no merit, that he failed to identify witnesses and that he was, in any event, “unavailable for a follow-up interview’’ — because, the report noted, he was dead.
Justice Department officials, in a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, acknowledged the federal investigation and said they also were examining whether prison officials abused their positions of authority and whether there was a pattern and practice of civil rights violations in the prison.
Harriet Krzykowski, a former counselor at the prison, said that she suspected corrections officers were starving and abusing inmates. She said that officers told her if she didn’t keep quiet, she might find herself alone in a dorm full of violent inmates with no officers to protect her. She said corrections officers described to her how they would fabricate reports to make it appear that inmates who were beaten or abused had instigated the trouble.
“I would have conversations with officers and I would tell them you don’t have to be disrespectful or nasty, and they would say, ‘Oh yeah, they are a piece of garbage. Do you know what their crime is?’” said Krzykowski, who has a degree in psychology and now counsels abused children in another state.
Rainey, who was sentenced to a two-year term for cocaine possession, suffered from severe schizophrenia and had been in prison for four months when, on June 23, 2012, he was locked in a shower chamber specially rigged to deliver 180-degree water through a hose from a neighboring janitorial closet. Although inmates could avoid the stream, the blistering water would lap at their feet and fill the enclosed chamber with steam, making the air difficult to breathe. Rainey was placed in the shower after defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up.
Prisoners said that corrections officers Cornelius Thompson and Roland Clarke and others on the shift that night ridiculed Rainey as he kicked the locked door and begged to be let out. They left him there for between 1 1/2 and two hours, according to various staff reports. At some point he collapsed, falling face-up onto the drain.
Afterward, inmates wrote letters to the governor, the prison system’s inspector general, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Miami-Dade police, but nothing was done.
Finally, last year, Harold Hempstead, a convicted burglar, contacted the Herald, and the newspaper began gathering records to support his story. Hempstead kept journals, now in the hands of investigators, detailing the abuse of inmates at Dade Correctional, including two inmates who weren’t fed and later died and several who were placed in the scalding shower before Rainey but survived. Hempstead said that he heard Rainey’s dying screams, and that the inmate’s lifeless body was carried directly past his cell.
Corrections officers ordered one inmate to clean up the shower, including chunks of Rainey’s skin that had separated from his body, according to the inmate, Mark Joiner. He placed them in a shoe, which was eventually tossed in the trash.
In an interview with the Herald last year, Joiner said he, too, heard Rainey screaming as steam filled the chamber that night and also heard the guards taunting Rainey, asking “How do you like your shower?”
It wasn’t until after the Herald published the story that the case was revived by Miami-Dade police, which recently finished its investigation and turned over findings to State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle.
Although the Dade Medical Examiner’s Office has yet to release an autopsy, a lawsuit filed in November by Rainey’s family said that he was burned over 90 percent of his body. Julie Jones, secretary of the Department of Corrections, recently sent a letter urging the medical examiner to move things along. Jones replaced Mike Crews, whose administration came under scrutiny as a result of Rainey’s death and the suspicious deaths of others.
Dade’s warden and deputy warden were induced to leave their positions in the wake of the Herald’s reporting.
Thompson left the Department of Corrections to work as a guard in the federal prison system, and Clarke is now a police officer in Miami Gardens.
The federal civil rights suit filed by Rainey’s family alleges that the Department of Corrections and Corizon, the company responsible for the prison's healthcare at the time of Rainey's death, not only knew inmates with mental illnesses were being abused in the prison, but allowed staffers to cover up the abuse.
McKinley Lewis, spokesman for the DOC, said that the department has instituted a number of safeguards to prevent future occurrences, including new surveillance cameras at Dade Correctional and the appointment of an assistant warden to oversee the prison’s mental health ward, known as the Transitional Care Unit.
The department also has added training for corrections officers, and created a mental health ombudsman position.
Lewis said that the department “has worked collaboratively with the MDPD, the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner’s Office and the state attorney’s office” and “welcomes the involvement of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and United States Department of Justice.”
Several groups, including Disability Rights of Florida and the American Civil Liberties Union, had called on the U.S. attorney general last year to investigate after it appeared that local and state investigations weren’t moving ahead.
Although the DOC has worked to improve conditions, more needs to be done, said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.
“There must be a change in the culture in Florida prisons,” he said. “But that is not going to happen until officials are routinely held accountable for the brutality that too often characterizes our state prison system.’’