Forgive Harold Hempstead for not being perfect. He’s a felon serving a 165-year prison sentence in the series of Florida prisons. He’s a convicted burglar whose life of crime started as a teenager. He has also seen, and been forced to participate in, the horrors that rogue prison guards carry out as sport against inmates, especially the mentally ill.
And he has managed to hold on to his humanity. For that alone, he deserves a shot at a second chance.
At great risk to his safety — and his life — Hempstead, 39, blew the whistle on the abject violence he had seen in prison, the worst of it meted out by guards who made degrading, torturing and even killing inmates a routine part of their jobs. Unfortunately, he had to blow that whistle long and loud before anyone would listen, especially authorities in the Department of Corrections.
Clearly, prison guards have a tough job. But the corrections system in Florida — and so many across the nation — still are riddled with guards who have lost almost all sense of human decency. Not Hempstead. He was sickened by the violence he had witnessed at the Dade Correctional Institution. The horrific death of Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate locked in a scalding shower, pushed him to the brink.
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He told prison doctors and nurses, then a counselor, DOC officials, the Miami-Dade police and the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. No one raised an eyebrow.
The Herald, specifically reporter Julie Brown, listened. And that’s when Hempstead’s allegations got traction. And action only can after months of stories that did a deep dive into the violence that the state sanctioned by its silence.
There have been changes for the better: Among them, guards have been fired for excessive force; there’s an inmate mortality database — that must truly become a public account of prison deaths; new DOC chief Julie Jones has a welcome mandate from Gov. Scott to overhaul DOC; corrections officers are to receive crisis-intervention training; and DOC has ordered surveillance cameras to be installed throughout the system.
But so many loose ends remain: More than three years after Rainey’s death, his family has yet to be told by the medical examiner how he died. That is cruel, unacceptable. And no matter where inmate Hempstead is imprisoned, he remains in danger from being the “snitch,” a derogatory term of intimidation that prevents too many people who know something from doing the right thing. It would behoove the DOC to be far more proactive in ensuring his safety. His blood on the agency’s hands would rightly bring a storm of outraged inquiry as to why he wasn’t better protected. In fact, DOC has yet to interview Hempstead about Rainey’s death. Again, unacceptable.
He is serving a 165-year sentence for a series of nonviolent crimes, sentenced in 2000 by a judge who told him, “I hope you die in prison.” In this state, murderers can walk free from prison in what seems like the blink of an eye. By all accounts, Hempstead, of St. Petersburg, has become an exemplary inmate, and given the depth and breadth results that his powerful story has forced, his extreme sentence, indeed, deserves a second look. Yes, he must pay a debt to society, however even some criminal attorneys concur that his judge’s comments are reason enough to ask the court to reconsider, and perhaps reduce, his sentence. This would be more than time off for good behavior. Rather, it would be time earned for his transformational public service.