As Florida’s prisons face increased scrutiny about suspicious inmate deaths, cover-ups, and questionable medical care, a state Senate panel is proposing new safeguards for prisoners.
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee will take up a broad piece of legislation next Monday that the chairman says is “a first step” aimed at resetting a prison culture rife with allegations of excessive force and negligent medical care.
“I thought we should memorialize certain ideas that would help the Department of Corrections do a better job of protecting inmates as well as corrections officers, staff and residents of the state,’’ said Sen. Greg Evers, a Crestview Republican and chairman of the committee.
At Monday’s hearing, the senators will also hear from Julie Jones, the governor's newly appointed secretary of the department, who has vowed to “fix what needs fixing” at the troubled agency.
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In a reflection of rising concern, the Broward Legislative Delegation held a public hearing Tuesday at Plantation City Hall focusing solely on prisons, primarily on medical care. Lawmakers heard from Randy Tifft, the regional director for the state’s southern tier. They asked him about the DOC’s handling of the investigation into the death of Darren Rainey, who was locked in a scalding-hot shower at Dade Correctional Institution for two hours until he collapsed and died. Rainey, a 50-year-old drug offender with severe mental illness, had angered guards by defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up.
After the incident, multiple inmates tried telling the DOC that Rainey was “murdered” by guards and that corrections officers mocked him as he begged to be let out of the closet-like shower. The department quickly suspended its investigation of the episode, disciplining no one. Miami-Dade police, charged with investigating Rainey’s death, didn’t interview key witnesses until the Miami Herald published an article this past May about the death.
The Senate proposal, SB 7020, doesn’t wait for Gov. Rick Scott and his administration to make changes to the prison system. It would impose penalties on employees caught using inappropriate force against inmates, punish doctors and nurses working for the private companies that provide inmate medical care when negligent medical care results in the harm of an inmate, and attempt to prevent retaliation against those who speak up.
Evers added, however, that the bill is only a “starting point” and it is likely to change “as other issues come up.”
The Senate began taking an aggressive look at Florida’s prison system after a series of reports in the Miami Herald revealed details about a series of suspicious inmate deaths, including Rainey’s; agency cover-ups; and an increase in the use of force by prison guards. Inmate deaths climbed 13 percent in 2014.
Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, asked Tifft whether authorities are any closer to completing their investigation into Rainey’s death, which occurred in June 2012.
Tifft said he had no new information.
“We need to know what are the circumstances, to prevent this from ever happening again,” he said.
Edwards replied: “That’s unacceptable. Officers involved would, I’m sure, like to clear their names. It’s been seven months since the last conversation and still nothing.”
As part of his Criminal Justice Committee’s probe into prison allegations, Evers surprised officials at Jefferson Correctional Institution and Suwannee Correctional last Thursday when he and his staff conducted unannounced inspections at the two troubled North Florida prisons.
Evers has demanded that DOC Chief Inspector General Jeffery Beasley, who oversees investigations into prison misconduct, appear before the committee to answer questions. A DOC spokesman said he will be there.
Beasley is a named defendant in a whistle-blower lawsuit alleging a cover-up in the death of inmate Randall Jordan-Aparo, who was repeatedly blasted with chemicals at Franklin Correctional Institution after complaining about a chronic ailment.
The proposed legislation focuses on improving both inmate safety and on better communication with regard to negligent medical care and excessive use of force. Those items are supported by one of the most outspoken critics of the prison system, George Mallinckrodt, a former psychotherapist at Dade Correctional’s transitional care unit, where inmates with mental illnesses are housed.
But he said the bill doesn’t go far enough.
While the bill imposes penalties for private doctors and nurses who deny medical treatment to ill inmates, a problem chronicled by the Palm Beach Post last year, Mallinckrodt believes there should also be punishment for the “culture of negligence” imposed by upper level administrators at Corizon and Wexford, the companies that hold the multimillion dollar contracts with the state.
He also would like to see penalties for upper-level managers at the Department of Corrections who condone inmate abuse but let underlings take the fall when someone is caught breaking the rules.
The bill would require investigators in the department’s inspector general’s office to be given specialized training for dealing with sexual abuse allegations. It prescribes new training in the handling of inmates with mental illnesses.
Additionally, it would require that security cameras be installed everywhere and monitored, eliminating blind spots.
The proposal would enable staff members to make anonymous and confidential reports to the department’s inspector general if they witness abuse or neglect of inmates and fear retribution.
Department of Corrections spokesman McKinley Lewis said the agency is reviewing the proposal but has no comment on the specifics at this time. He said the department is looking forward to working with lawmakers.