Miami-Dade County

Under fire, Florida prisons changing policy on death investigations

The Department of Corrections is proposing that all unattended inmate deaths and incidents involving serious injury of inmates be chiefly handled by the state Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The proposal, which must be finalized with FDLE, is among several changes announced by prisons chief Michael Crews in the wake of a series of stories in the Miami Herald about the as yet officially unexplained death of Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate who was found dead in a shower at Dade Correctional Institution two years ago.

Rainey, 50, died after corrections officers at the state prison south of Homestead allegedly placed him in a locked, closet-like shower/decontamination unit, which inmates say waspunishment for defecating in his cell, and turned the water on full blast at temperatures in excess of 180 degrees. Water temperature was controlled from the outside.

Fellow inmates said he screamed for mercy, to no avail. He was found dead, his skin purportedly sagging off his body, after nearly two hours in the shower unit.

DOC’s current policy allows local police to sometimes step in and investigate inmate deaths or injuries in lieu of FDLE. In Rainey’s case, Miami-Dade police were alerted by DOC, as permitted under its policy.

Miami-Dade police detectives, however, made some missteps in the case early on, and DOC officials have expressed concern about how long it is taking to finish the probe.

After the Herald published a story about Rainey’s death in May, DOC’s deputy secretary, Timothy Cannon, wrote a strongly worded letter to Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson, requesting that he expedite the investigation.

Questions have been raised about how both DOC and Miami-Dade police handled the probe. DOC’s inspector general closed its case in October 2012, four months after Rainey’s death, deferring to the Miami-Dade medical examiner to determine whether Rainey’s death was the result of wrongdoing. The medical examiner completed the autopsy 18 months ago, and ME Bruce Hyma said he will release his findings only after the police probe is complete.

Rainey’s relatives were never informed that his death on June 23, 2012, was out of the ordinary, and they still do not know his cause of death.

The case wasn’t treated as suspicious and, as a result, some key evidence, such as the 911 recording from the prison, was not preserved. Some witnesses were not interviewed until after the Herald began asking questions about Rainey’s death in May.

Records from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue indicate that there may have been as long as a 20-minute delay between the time Rainey’s body was found and the time paramedics were called to the prison. One inmate, Mark Joiner, wrote in a letter to the inspector general that he was forced to clean up the “crime scene” and had evidence that Rainey’s death was a homicide. The inspector general, however, did not interview Joiner, who was subsequently moved to another prison.

Under DOC’s current policy, FDLE must be contacted in all cases involving homicide or suspicious deaths at state prisons. But FDLE can defer to local law enforcement — or, if it doesn’t appear to be suspicious, DOC’s inspector general can elect to handle the case on its own.

DOC officials said the proposed change is an effort to formalize that FDLE is the state’s primary investigative agency involving state prison facilities.

“We take any untimely death of an inmate very seriously,’’ Crews said.

DOC Inspector General Jeffrey Beasley met with Miami-Dade police in early April to review evidence in the Rainey case. Beasley said that if police find any evidence of criminal activity or misconduct, DOC will hold those responsible accountable.

“Transparency and accountability are critical to our mission,’’ Beasley said at the time, adding that he hoped police would “bring this investigation to the quickest possible conclusion.’’

DOC’s inspector general announced last week that it was reopening its investigation into Rainey’s case.