The Florida Department of Corrections has opened a criminal investigation into whether a public record provided by the agency to the Miami Herald was forged.
The document was a form, purportedly filled out and signed by inmate Harold Hempstead, the whistle-blower who in March leaked details to the newspaper about a gruesome death at Dade Correctional Institution, where inmate Darren Rainey collapsed while locked in a brutally hot shower.
Hempstead’s information led the Herald to investigate the Rainey case as well as other suspicious deaths and possible corruption in the Florida Department of Corrections. By the end of 2014, DCI’s top administrators had been ousted, and the department’s secretary, Michael Crews, had retired.
Last year, in the course of the newspaper’s investigation, Hempstead signed a release giving the Herald blanket permission to obtain all his medical records, waiving the strict health information privacy law known as HIPPA.
The rule provides safeguards to protect the privacy of personal health information, and sets limits and conditions on what may be disclosed without patient authorization. Normally, the department heavily redacts its documents, citing the federal law, including details such as where a prisoner is found injured, beaten or dead, where they are transported after they are found and evidence discovered at the scene that the agency believes may reveal an inmate’s medical condition. Examples of redacted items might include descriptions of bloody clothing or, in the case of Rainey, the fact that pieces of skin had fallen off his body.
After Hempstead signed the waiver, a Department of Corrections spokesman informed the newspaper that he had withdrawn his permission to release his records uncensored. When the Herald questioned whether that was true, the spokesman supplied a document — seemingly not in Hempstead’s handwriting — that expressed his change of heart.
Since then, the inmate said, he has told two DOC investigators in two separate interviews that the second document is a fraud.
Hempstead was housed at Dade Correctional in June 2012 when Rainey, a mentally ill inmate, died after being herded into a locked, scalding-hot shower and left there for nearly two hours.
Hempstead kept detailed diaries detailing Rainey’s death, as well as notes on the suspicious deaths of other inmates and other prisoners who were subjected to excruciating showers, or starved or abused.
In 2013, after he was transferred from DCI to another state prison, Hempstead repeatedly wrote to DCI’s warden, Jerry Cummings, and to the department’s inspector general and the U.S. Justice Department, asserting that Rainey had been the victim of a homicide.
He also wrote letters to Miami-Dade police detectives, who were tasked with investigating Rainey’s death but conducted few if any interviews.
In March 2014, frustrated with the lack of progress, Hempstead contacted the Miami Herald. By then he had been transferred back to DCI and, despite the possibility of retaliation by guards, began providing the Herald with details about possible criminal activity at the prison.
It wasn’t until the Herald began asking questions about Hempstead’s complaints that Miami-Dade police interviewed Hempstead, and the DOC’s inspector general, who had suspended his investigation into Rainey’s death without holding anyone accountable, took a renewed interest in the case. Recently, a detective visited Hempstead at a new facility — where he is in protective confinement — and obtained his diaries.
Hempstead was originally sentenced to 165 years for a spate of burglaries committed in Pinellas County in 1989-90. He is a non-violent offender who has served nearly 15 years. Now 38, he is not scheduled to be released until 2161, when he will be in his mid-80s.
At the time of Rainey’s death, he was an orderly in DCI’s transitional care unit, where inmates who suffer from mental illness are housed.
Hempstead — and several other inmates interviewed by the Herald — claim that Rainey was forced into the closet-like shower, which they say had been specially rigged by corrections officers to inflict pain on unruly prisoners. Rainey was serving two years for cocaine possession.
The Miami-Dade state attorney is reviewing the Rainey case, but to date no charges have been brought. The Miami-Dade medical examiner has not released the autopsy, pending the state attorney’s review.