Miami-Dade County

Inmate’s family latest to sue over Miami-Dade shower death

Darren Rainey
Darren Rainey Florida Department of Corrections

Darren Rainey was burned over 90 percent of his body, and his temperature registered over 104 degrees after he was found dead in a scalding shower at Dade Correctional Institution in 2012, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the state Department of Corrections by Rainey’s family.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, alleges that Rainey — diagnosed with severe schizophrenia — was tortured by corrections officers who used a “shower treatment’’ against him and other mentally ill inmates at the prison. It also claims that the Florida Department of Corrections and Corizon, the private company responsible for the prison’s healthcare at the time of Rainey’s death, not only knew that mentally ill inmates were being abused in the prison, but allowed staff to cover it up.

Corizon, which has a five-year, $1.2 billion contract with the state, has incurred the wrath of prison officials after an assortment of shortcomings, including its failure to fulfill its contractual requirements for treating the mentally ill. For instance, state documents show the company, at various institutions, failed to conduct sex offender screenings, didn’t evaluate prisoners before dispensing psychotropic drugs, ignored inmate-declared psychological emergencies and was derelict in monitoring inmates placed on “self-harm observational status.”

Wednesday’s lawsuit, brought by Rainey’s brother, Andre Chapman, and four other family members, seeks unspecified damages. They are represented by the Florida Institutional Legal Services Project and Disability Rights Florida — the same groups that, in September, sued the Department of Corrections, alleging systemic abuse and discrimination, including brutality, deprivation of food, and physical and verbal harassment by corrections officers against inmates with serious mental illness at the prison, located in Miami-Dade, just south of Homestead.

The lawsuit offered several new details about Rainey’s death: It said when he was found, Rainey’s tympanic (ear) body temperature was 104.9 degrees; he had no pulse, no respiration and no blood pressure; and a medical note made at 9:40 p.m., after he was discovered, described him as burned on over 90 percent of his body. “His skin was hot/warm to touch and skin comes off when touched,” a nurse’s report said.

The lawsuit contends that the Department of Corrections, Corizon and the two corrections officers who forced Rainey into the shower violated the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution — banning cruel and unusual punishment — as well as the 14th Amendment, which provides all citizens, regardless of disability, race or religion, equal protection under the law.

In May, the Miami Herald published the first in a series of stories about the suspicious deaths of inmates in the state prison system, starting with Rainey, who was serving two years for cocaine possession. At the time he died, Rainey, of Tampa, had been in the system for just four months.

The newspaper’s investigation revealed that corrections officers had been routinely abusing inmates, and that the worst abuse was reserved for prisoners in DCI’s mental health unit, also known as the TCU.

On Thursday, the Department of Corrections said it is cooperating with police and has urged them to wrap up their investigation into Rainey’s death. Secretary Michael Crews has acknowledged the agency needs to overhaul the way it cares for the mentally ill. In October, he announced a series of reforms, including the appointment of a mental health ombudsman, the first of its kind in the nation to deal solely with mentally ill inpatient care.

Putting Corizon in charge of healthcare at state prisons was a controversial move. It was awarded the contract at 41 prisons in North and Central Florida despite being sued for malpractice more than 660 times over the prior five years, according to the Broward Bulldog. Of the 91 lawsuits that had been resolved at that time, one in four ended with confidential settlements that Corizon declined to discuss.

A different company, Wexford, now serves Dade Correctional and other prisons in the southern tier of the state.

In September, Crews issued a scathing letter to Corizon, calling the company’s services inadequate and threatening to withhold payments if it didn’t improve.

Corizon — which didn’t have to reveal its lawsuit history to win the contract — issued the following statement on Thursday: “While Corizon Health does not comment on litigation, it’s important to note that we stand behind the work of our medical professionals in Florida, who are committed to delivering quality care to all patients.”

The lawsuit states that Rainey’s mental illness was so severe that five days before his death he was given an emergency injection of Haldol, an anti-psychotic medication, to manage his symptoms. His prison record showed that, on the night of his death, he was delusional, disheveled and was smearing feces on himself and on his cell, the lawsuit said.

Two corrections officers, Cornelius Thompson and Roland Clarke, escorted Rainey to a closet-sized shower that was specially rigged so that the water temperature could be manually controlled from an adjacent mop closet.

Witnesses told the Herald — and the lawsuit alleges — that Rainey screamed as he was left in the hot spray, begging to be let out, to no avail. Thompson, Clarke and other corrections officers taunted him, asking him if the water was hot enough, witnesses said.

They left him there, locked inside, for nearly two hours, and when they returned, he was flat on his back and chunks of his skin were floating in the water.

A copy of an email sent to then-warden Jerry Cummings showed that the shower spray, tested the next morning, was 160 degrees. A one-second exposure to 160-degree water will result in third-degree burns, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Two DCI inmates subsequently gave statements claiming that “the shower treatment’’ had been used againstothers as punishment for misbehavior. Despite their statements, and the medical notes at the time of Rainey’s death, the investigation by Miami-Dade police, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner and the DOC languished. Several key witnesses were not interviewed until the Herald began asking questions in May 2014.

“The family continues to be troubled by the fact that, more than two years later, there is still no cause of death from the medical examiner or a completed investigation by the police or FDOC into Mr. Rainey’s death,’’ said Kristen Lentz, one of the family’s lawyers. “The family is looking for accountability and hopes this litigation achieves some degree of justice.’’

Thompson left the DOC last year to take a job as a corrections officer in the federal prison system in Florida. Clarke is now a Miami Gardens police officer.

Cummings was forced out by Crews as warden in July. In a recent interview with the Herald, he said he suspected wrongdoing in Rainey’s death, which is why he ordered the temperature taken and the results passed on to the prison system’s inspector general, as well as to his own bosses in Tallahassee. Inspector General Jeffery Beasley closed the investigation in October 2012, but reopened it in May amid newspaper reports questioning what, if anything, the agency did to investigate.

Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma has said he will not release the autopsy until the police probe is complete. The state attorney continues to investigate the case, and has met with prison-rights advocacy groups in recent weeks.

John Marraccini, a forensic pathologist and former chief medical examiner in Palm Beach County, said it’s hard to say why the medical examiner has not released his findings, even if the police investigation remains open. The cause of death should be known, even if the manner (i.e. accident, homicide or undetermined) isn’t yet clear, he added.

He also noted that even if Rainey suffered from another ailment, such as coronary artery disease, and had a heart attack, the medical examiner is tasked with examining the chain of events that preceded his death, including determining whether he experienced thermal shock from being in a 160-degree shower for nearly two hours.

“For example, a heart attack could have been brought about by external trauma or thermal shock,’’ Marraccini said.

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