Darren Rainey died in a Florida prison under questionable circumstances and no one is responsible.
That’s the inescapable — and unsatisfactory — conclusion one must reach after reading the close-out memo on Rainey’s death from the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office. They tried their best to bury it, sending it out late last Friday afternoon, which just happened to be St. Patrick’s Day, timing it so this hot-potato document would garner the least media scrutiny and little public attention.
But attention must be paid. Because a mentally ill man incarcerated in a notorious state prison died in circumstances that look like he was tortured to death. Rainey was found unresponsive on the floor of a shower at Dade Correctional Institution on June 23, 2012. It’s taken five years to find out how it happened, an unconsionable length of time.
In this case justice was not only blind, she was lame.
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Rainey was mentally ill, a schizophrenic on heavy-duty meds. After defecating in his cell and smearing the feces on himself and the cell, Rainey was taken to a special shower to get cleaned up. But he was locked inside for nearly two hours in hot water that tests later showed ran up to160 degrees, well above normal. Hot enough to steep a tea bag. Or, in Rainey’s case, hot enough to cause his skin to peel off.
The close-out memo offers this description of the scene from Roland Clarke, the corrections officer who put Rainey in the shower: “Rainey’s body felt warm and slippery and that when he was lifting him some of inmate Rainey’s skin was coming off.” Yes, it’s ghastly and ghoulish, an almost medieval way for anyone to die, much less a schizophrenic who probably should have been in a forensic hospital instead of the “Temporary Transitional Unit” — euphemism for the mental ward — at a state prison.
One inmate on that ward said he heard guards call out gleefully to Rainey in the shower, “Is it hot enough?” Rainey is said to have screamed, kicked the door and begged to be let out, but wasn’t. He was found on the floor of the shower, not breathing, some two hours after Clarke put him in. He was periodically checked, the memo says, by corrections officer Cornelius Thompson. Both men later resigned from the state prison system, but were allowed to keep their law enforcement certification. One is now a federal corrections officer, the other a Miami Gardens cop. Miami-Dade police and prosecutors gave their version of events the benefit of the doubt. I would have preferred to let a jury of their peers decide. The state attorney says there wasn’t sufficient evidence of a crime to charge anyone. No harm, no foul, yet a man is dead.
A preliminary medical report found there was “visible trauma … throughout the decedents’ body.” But by the time Medical Examiner Dr. Emma Lew did the final autopsy, she said Rainey had no trauma and “no thermal injuries (burns) of any kind on his body.” That’s just one of many discrepancies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in this case.
Let’s be clear. For corrections officers, dealing with inmates like Darren Rainey must be difficult, frustrating and maddening. It was hard enough for the psychotherapists at D.C.I., some of whom had complained earlier about sadistic behavior by some guards who, they said, taunted mentally ill inmates, punished them by serving “air trays” (no food) and punishing the most recalcitrant by putting them in that special shower stall under icy cold or scalding hot water. And did I mention that the water temperature could only be controlled by a CO using faucets in an adjoining janitor’s closet?
Clarke, the officer who shoved Rainey into the shower, told Miami-Dade detectives that he first made sure the water was neither too hot nor too cold. But when cops arrived the night of Rainey’s death, none bothered to see how hot the water could go. There was no accurate measurement taken. Moreover, detectives initially questioned only a handful of corrections officers, inmates and staff. It was a careless, slipshod investigation that took the corrections officers at their word.
I respect the Miami-Dade Police Department, but this was not their finest hour. Nor State Attorney Kathy Rundle’s. The serious investigation of Rainey’s death only began two years later after Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown started asking questions. She spoke with staff and inmates who told of frightening conditions in the TCU and sadistic guards. Some of the most damning information came from inmate Harold Hempstead who had the guts to file complaints about Rainey’s death with anyone who would listen. Hempstead, a felony burglar and a trusty on the ward, claimed to have seen and heard much of what happened the night Rainey died. But prosecutors said his story had glaring inconsistencies and he was deemed to be not credible. I’d love to speak with Hempstead, but he was transferred just last Friday to a prison in another state. Some coincidence, huh?
So where does the Rainey case stand? It’s over, unless the Civil Right Division at the Justice Department finds wrongdoing. Good luck with that under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In June, it will have been five years since Rainey was put in the shower alive and carried out dead, his skin peeling off. He was a small-time, mentally ill cocaine dealer. Now dead, some may wonder if it merits our continued attention. Yes, it does. You can find the reason in the Gospel According to Matthew: “Truly, I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”