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Health inspectors probing rat infestation at Miami-Dade jail

Health inspectors are investigating conditions at the Miami-Dade County Jail after an employee complained “rats can be seen running rampant” around the aging, dilapidated building.

“It is so bad that inmates are being extorted like some type of mafia cartel by the rats,” civilian administrator Greg Rollins wrote in a letter this month to the county’s health department. “Inmates are forced to throw food out of their cells along the walls in order for the rats not to come into the cells to raid and rampage.”

Miami-Dade’s health department, which oversees only the jail’s kitchen, did not spot any rodents during a visit but found conditions that lead to rats entering the facility. Inspectors will return Friday for a follow-up visit.

Corrections Department Director Tim Ryan said he believes the complaint exaggerates conditions at the jail. Pest control workers visit frequently and recently found four rodents – three in the outside garbage area, and one in a trap inside the building.

“It is not a systemic issue,” he said. “We’re paying a great deal of attention to it.”

Also, the corrections department soon is starting a $22-million project to refurbish the kitchen and underground pipes, Ryan said.

The complaint was sent to the state-run Miami health department on March 7. The letter also alleged that a rat larger than a 20-ounce soda bottle recently fell from the ceiling in the employee dining area.

The jail has been vexed by sewage seepage and, for employees with certain allergies, even stray cats flocking to the jail to eat the rodents, Rollins wrote.

The day after the letter was sent, an inspector visited the jail’s kitchen and found roaches in a food tray area, standing water by the outside garbage zone and openings around pipes and in walls that could lead to rats entering.

Those problems are being corrected, Ryan said.

Allegations of repulsive living conditions are nothing new at the aging and unsanitary jail, now more than 60 years old. In August 2011, a sweeping U.S. Department of Justice found that conditions at the county’s jails pose serious health risks to inmates.

The corrections department, one of the largest in the country, right now averages fewer than 5,000 inmates daily — down from about 7,400 four years ago.

Complaints about conditions at Miami-Dade jails have plagued the county since the mid-1970s, when inmates filed suit over overcrowding at the main jail, known as the Pretrial Detention Center, at 1321 NW 13th St.

In 1984, a federal judge declared the conditions unconstitutional. The lawsuit was settled after 25 years and some improvements.

Still, system-wide problems continue. The escape of a serial rapist from the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center in December 2005 spurred another task force, which outdated facilities, poor training, lax security, too many job vacancies and a ballooning population of mentally ill inmates.

Twice, in 2004 and 2008, Miami-Dade grand juries blasted the ward’s deplorable conditions.