Miami-Dade County

After 4 1/2 years of official silence, decision day on Florida prison shower death

Darren Rainey
Darren Rainey Florida Department of Corrections

In June 2012, Darren Rainey was forced into a shower by officers at Dade Correctional Institution and left there, under a blistering spray of scalding water, for nearly two hours. Rainey, who suffered from schizophrenia, screamed and begged to be let out of the small stall, until, finally, he collapsed and died, flecks of his skin floating in the water — and his body temperature so high that it couldn’t be registered on a thermometer.

On Friday, nearly five years after his death, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle is expected to release her office’s investigation into Rainey’s death — and announce whether anyone will be held criminally responsible.

Milton Grimes, the attorney representing Rainey’s family, said Fernández Rundle’s office contacted him Thursday to alert him that the report would be released Friday afternoon. The fact that it is being released on a Friday afternoon — and on St. Patrick’s Day, when many a work day is cut short — gives him scant hope that justice will be served.

Releasing bad news or documents on a Friday afternoon is typically known as a “Friday news dump,” an attempt to release a report at a time when it will avoid scrutiny by the public and the media.

“As you can imagine, his family has been waiting a very long time for justice,’’ Grimes told the Miami Herald on Thursday evening. “They are very anxious about what the state attorney will say and hopeful that someone will be charged.’’

Fernández Rundle’s spokesman, Ed Griffith, did not return emails or voice messages left by the Herald on Thursday evening. But sources had told the Herald two weeks ago that the report was finished and its release was imminent.

Dade Correctional Institution — located on the edge of the Everglades near Homestead — is a facility that houses approximately 1,500 male inmates. It is one of a handful of state prisons with transitional care units (TCUs) that house prisoners who suffer from mental illness.

Rainey’s death led to the growth of a prison reform movement by human rights groups, among them a local group called SPAN (Stop Prison Abuse Now). Its activists have held protests and pressured Fernández Rundle to bring charges against the officers involved in Rainey’s death.

Dade’s corrections officers had specially rigged a shower in the TCU to be cranked up to scalding temperatures, or made frigidly cold, to punish inmates who were unruly, the Miami Herald found as part of a three-year investigation into statewide prison abuse that began in 2014. The controls were in a different room.

Dade CI’s guards also used other forms of torture: dousing prisoners with buckets of chemicals, over-medicating them, forcing them to fight each other and starving them. A group of officers at the prison that served inmates empty food trays was known as the “diet squad.’’

Rainey, 50, was serving a two-year sentence for drug possession and had been at Dade for about four months at the time of his death. On June 23, 2012, Rainey reportedly had soiled himself in his cell and refused to clean himself up, angering the guards, who forced him into the shower.

The officers claimed they checked on Rainey every half an hour and that he was fine. But witnesses said Rainey screamed and begged to be let out, promising them he would behave. The officers reportedly taunted him and laughed, saying “is it hot enough?’’

Miami-Dade police were called to the prison to investigate that night, and issued a preliminary report. They classified the death as an “unexplained in-custody death,’’ and set it aside. It wasn’t until the Herald began writing about the incident in May 2014 that detectives began looking into it in earnest.

Even then, Miami-Dade’s medical examiner would not release the autopsy or the cause of death — not even to Rainey’s family. Andre Chapman, Rainey’s brother, said prison officials had pressured him into cremating Darren, and because the family had no money, he agreed.

Following the Herald's stories, Dade CI’s warden and assistant warden were forced out, and later, the secretary for the department also stepped down amid political pressure. To this day, however, no one has been disciplined or charged, and several of the officers on duty that night were promoted after the incident.

The two guards identified in reports as locking Rainey in the shower left their prison jobs, but were allowed to keep their law enforcement certifications. One of them is now a police officer in Miami Gardens and the other works as a federal corrections officer.

Last year, some details of the autopsy were leaked, showing that the medical examiner had ruled Rainey’s death “accidental” — the result of complications from schizophrenia, heart disease and “confinement” in a shower. This led to speculation that no charges would be filed in the case.

The two guards identified in reports as locking Rainey in the shower left their prison jobs, but were allowed to keep their law enforcement certifications.

Rainey’s family filed a civil lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections in 2016. In it, relatives said Rainey had been burned over 90 percent of his body and his skin was so hot to the touch that it was peeling.

His death led to the growth of a prison reform movement by human rights groups, among them a local group called SPAN (Stop Prison Abuse Now). Its activists have held protests and pressured Fernández Rundle to bring charges against the officers involved in Rainey’s death.

“If indeed the report on Darren Rainey’s brutal murder comes out on a Friday afternoon ... SPAN views it as regrettable, because perhaps it’s being done to detract from it so that people won’t pay attention. We will, however, wait and comment on the report when it is released,’’ said Steve Wetstein, SPAN’s spokesman.

While Rainey’s death has led to some reforms in the treatment of those with mental illnesses in Florida prisons, the system remains dangerously understaffed and rife with violence, as evidenced by recent turmoil and riots at prisons throughout Florida.

Several groups, including Disability Rights Florida and the American Civil Liberties Union, had called on the U.S. attorney general last year to investigate after it appeared that local and state investigations weren’t moving ahead. A federal probe into abuse in Florida prisons is pending.

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