Conditions at Miami-Dade County jails have become so dire that the U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into possible civil-rights violations -- including poor treatment of the mentally ill and the mistreatment of inmates -- and suicides.
The investigation, detailed in a department letter sent this week to County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, Corrections Chief Tim Ryan and U.S. Attorney R. Alex Acosta, comes on the heels of an ongoing federal inquiry into language barriers at local jails.
Federal authorities are "obliged to determine whether there are systemic violations of the Constitution of the United States in the conditions at Miami-Dade County Jail, " Acting Assistant Attorney General Grace Chung Baker informed county officials.
"Our investigation will focus on protection of inmates from harm, including providing adequate suicide-prevention measures, medical care, mental healthcare, protection from inmate violence and sanitation conditions, as well as the use of excessive force against inmates."
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Alvarez responded to the letter with a two-page memo outlining a plan to correct problems at the county's six main jail facilities, and said he welcomed the investigation.
The mayor said a team of healthcare experts have assessed the jails. He said a new mental-health facility would soon open and that corrections officers now undergo crisis-intervention training.
"The challenges found by our correctional system are numerous, but I can assure you the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department will undertake this matter with professionalism and a commitment to excellence, " Alvarez wrote.
Some advocates view the investigation as a path to create long overdue changes in how the criminal justice system handles inmates with mental health problems.
"We need to find a way to divert low-risk offenders that really need substance abuse treatment or mental health treatment and get them into community mental health settings, " said Carlos J. Martinez, Miami-Dade's chief assistant public defender.
In 2006, Martinez was among a group of public defenders who successfully challenged the state Department of Children & Families to place mentally ill defendants in treatment within 15 days of a judge's order.
Most of the jail's mentally ill are kept on the ninth floor of the Pre-Trial Detention Center. At any one time, Dade's jails may be occupied by between 800 and 1,200 mentally ill patients.
Martinez said the jails have too many inmates and not enough officers.
"That's how you get conditions like we had on the ninth floor that totally got out of control. Overcrowding and understaffing [are] still at the root of the problem, " he said.
Ryan, the corrections chief, said Miami-Dade's jails now house 6,958 inmates, though the facilities have room for only 5,845. Ryan said he will ask county commissioners for money to renovate facilities and increase occupancy to house 8,000 inmates.
Correction's problems began to surface after a series of inmate deaths and police confrontations with the mentally ill led to a scathing 2005 grand jury report that cited "the failure to provide effective, long-term treatment and care of the mentally ill who live among us."
The report called the county's jails a taxpayer burden and a serious problem affecting the community. The grand jury recommended creating a long-term care facility.
After the report, Alvarez created a Mental Health Task Force led by County Judge Steve Leifman. The group recommended building a new facility for the mentally ill that Ryan hopes will be ready some time in 2009.
The Corrections department has been battered the past four years with newspaper and television reports highlighting poor conditions, including a 2004 Miami Herald investigation detailing the system's failure to care for the severely mentally ill.
A WFOR-Channel 4 series filming footage inside the jail system triggered more scrutiny, and CNN followed.
Miami-Dade judges threatened to hold the state DCF in contempt for not promptly getting mentally ill inmates out of jail and into treatment.
In October 2006, Human Rights Watch filed an affidavit contending the mental health wing of the Pre-Trial Detention Center failed "to meet basic international human rights standards for treatment of prisoners."
Judge Leifman told a congressional subcommittee in March 2007 that the "jails and prisons in the United States now function as the largest psychiatric hospitals in the country."
On Friday, Leifman wouldn't discuss the investigation, but said: "The jail just isn't an appropriate setting for the mentally ill."
Corrections records show that of the 129 inmates who have died in jail since 2001, seven had killed themselves.
The county's Ryan says some incidents spurred changes, citing the May 2006 suicide of accused killer Waltaire Choute, 23, at the Metro West jail. Choute hung himself by slipping a noose made of a bed sheet through a tiny air vent over a toilet.
The air vents are now covered by metal plates that don't block air flow, and Ryan said they're being installed at the Turner Guilford Knight jail, as well.
He also said nurses, counselors and correctional officers now undergo training to help detect warning signs of possible suicides.
The federal investigation is the second time recently that U.S. authorities have felt compelled to investigate county issues. Last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took over Miami-Dade's troubled housing agency.
Still, Becker's Justice letter leaves wiggle room for the county on the jails. She told the county her department has not reached any conclusions -- and that if the county cooperates fully, and Justice determines there are no systemic violations, the investigation will be shut down.
"If on the other hand, we conclude there are such violations, we will provide detailed written findings and identify the minimum measures we believe are necessary to remedy the violations, " Becker wrote.