Miami-Dade County

Police probing Miami-Dade death of mentally ill inmate

Not long after Joaquin Cairo was booked into Miami-Dade’s psychiatric jail ward following a minor arrest for criminal mischief, he showed up in court in a wheelchair.

His pelvis fractured, he complained to court staffers that he had been violently slammed into a bed by a fellow inmate during an attempted rape.

One week later, Cairo — still in jail — was rushed into surgery at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead.

The July 9 death of the 53-year-old man has led to a Miami-Dade police investigation and renewed scrutiny of an already beleaguered corrections system and the much-criticized psychiatric floor at the county’s main jail.

Investigators are trying to determine if corrections afforded Cairo the proper medical care while he was behind bars.

“This was very avoidable,” said Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, an advocate for the mentally ill who has fought for years to shut down the jail’s psychiatric facility. “This should not have happened. You shouldn’t get the death penalty for a misdemeanor because you have a mental illness.”

Federal oversight

The death comes at a sensitive time for the Miami-Dade Corrections Department, which for years has been plagued by scandal and is under federal oversight because of shoddy conditions in its jails and subpar treatment of the mentally ill.

U.S. Department of Justice officials, who visited the jails last week as part of continuing oversight of the facilities, learned of the inmate’s death and “were extraordinarily concerned,” Leifman said.

The woes on the ninth floor have also been the subject of recent news reports by Miami Herald news partner CBS4.

Cairo, who had a history of schizophrenia, was booked into the Miami-Dade County Jail on June 25. An arrest report detailing his alleged crime was not available.

The homeless man had only one previous arrest in Florida, according to state records — a misdemeanor mischief charge in May.

On July 2, Cairo appeared in court in a wheelchair and told court mental health staffers that a fellow inmate attempted to “proposition” him, throwing him against a bed when he refused. Cairo reported severe swelling and could not walk.

After he complained to the judge, Cairo was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Rape Treatment Center, where he was examined and later returned to the jail, according to an internal corrections report obtained by the Herald.

Seven days later, Cairo died after being rushed to Jackson’s emergency trauma center for surgery. Exactly how long Cairo was undergoing medical treatment in the intervening days is unknown — Miami-Dade corrections officials have refused to comment.

“I was told by court corrections staff that he was waiting to see a doctor for clearance so that he could be released from custody,” Leifman said.

Miami-Dade police investigate all deaths in the county jails, whether homicide or natural.

“At this time, it is an open death investigation pending further interviews and review by the medical examiner,” said Miami-Dade police spokesman Javier Baez.

In April, the county agreed to a long and expensive list of ways to improve how it treats inmates, particularly those who are mentally ill or suicidal.

The Justice Department wrapped up its three-year review in 2011, concluding that Miami-Dade’s jail system — the eighth-largest in the nation — engaged in a “pattern and practice of constitutional violation” of the rights of inmates housed in deplorable living conditions under abusive, inadequate or limited care.

Care failures

The investigation found that the jail does not provide proper medical care, failing to provide proper screenings and health assessments, and even botching the dosages of medicine handed out on a daily basis.

Since 2008, at least five inmates have died after jailers failed to treat them as they withdrew from drugs or alcohol, the report noted. Also, “the jail does not track prisoners with chronic illness nor monitor their conditions,” the report said, noting patients with HIV, diabetes and hypertension and histories of seizures go unmonitored or untreated.

Miami-Dade Corrections Director Tim Ryan has said the department is making changes and complying with the federal recommendations.

The county has also agreed to build a mental-health treatment facility for inmates, a project championed by Leifman for years. The facility is estimated to cost between $12 million and $16 million, plus $29 million a year to operate.

Last month, a security gaffe caused the cell doors of a maximum security wing of the county’s Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center to open suddenly. In an inmate scuffle that ensued, one man hurled himself off the second-story of the wing, severely injuring his legs.

The state’s health department also recently investigated conditions in the Miami-Dade County Jail after employees complained about rats in the aging building.

Complaints about conditions at Miami-Dade jails have been around 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, systemwide problems continue. The escape of a serial rapist from Turner Guilford Knight in December 2005 prompted the creation of another task force, which reported 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 deplorable conditions at county jails.