Miami-Dade County

Notorious Miami-Dade psychiatric jail ward finally shuttered

The newly renovated floor for mentally ill inmates at Miami-Dade 's TGK facility on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015.
The newly renovated floor for mentally ill inmates at Miami-Dade 's TGK facility on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The Miami-Dade County Jail’s notorious ninth-floor psychiatric ward — which became a national symbol for the shoddy treatment of the mentally ill behind bars — is no more.

After years of criticism and a stinging federal investigation, jailers have quietly shuttered the floor, moving hundreds of mentally ill inmates to newly refurbished and more comfortable units at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center.

“I’m thrilled they have finally made the change. It’s a shame so many people were hurt or died on the floor while we were waiting for the change to occur,” said Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman, the county’s leading advocate for improving treatment of mentally ill defendants. “But the new facility over at TGK is much better, more appropriate and more human.”

The closing of the main jail’s psychiatric ward comes nearly two years after the county, faced with scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice, agreed to a massive overhaul of the Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department.

The move also comes as the county is expected to begin construction work in the coming months on the Mental Health Diversion Facility. It’s touted as a “one-stop shop” building that will include a crisis unit for unstable patients, short-term housing, a courtroom and therapeutic classes. The location will be a former hospital on Northwest Seventh Avenue in Miami.

Unlike the cells at the main jail, TGK boasts a dormitory-style construction, with a common area for inmates to congregate.

As part of the retrofit, bunks and stainless steel sink-and-toilets fixtures designed to stave off suicide attempts were installed. So were video surveillance cameras that are to monitored 24 hours a day, in addition to regular staff rounds.

The second-floor units at TGK also feature an outdoor space for inmates to get fresh air and exercise. The Jackson Health system, which provides care for the jails, will also provide therapeutic programs for mentally ill inmates.

“Art, music therapy, even a yoga instructor,” said Miami-Dade Corrections Assistant Director Daniel Junior.

On any given day in Miami-Dade jails, more than 1,000 inmates take some sort of psychiatric drugs, making the corrections system the largest warehouse for people with mental illnesses in Florida. Taxpayers have felt the burden – mental healthcare at the jails costs taxpayers $80 million per year, or about $225,000 a day.

The main jail, across from Miami-Dade criminal courthouse, was built in 1959 and never intended to hold such a large population. Inmates sued for overcrowding in the 1970s — a federal judge later declared the conditions unconstitutional.

In recent decades, the population of the mentally ill in jails as skyrocketed as public psychiatric hospitals closed around the state.

The jail’s ninth floor has been the subject of many investigative reports by the Miami Herald, other media outlets and outside agencies. In 2004 and 2008, separate Miami-Dade grand juries ripped the ward's deplorable conditions.

By 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice finished a sweeping investigation, declaring: “Rather than being therapeutic, the wing is chaotic, crowded, foul-smelling, depressing and unacceptable for housing prisoners who are mentally ill or suicidal.”

Problems persisted, despite federal supervision that started in 2011. In 2013, a homeless schizophrenic man named Joaquin Cairo, who was housed on the ninth floor, died after he was injured during an altercation with another inmate. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office is still investigating whether he received proper treatment for his injuries.

Part of the overhaul included additional training and regulations for jail staffers.

Physical limitations hampered the efforts. But jail populations have fallen drastically – from a peak average of 7,400 to about 4,400 today – in part because police have made an effort to arrest fewer mentally ill patients and minor offenders.

With space now freed up at TGK, wings of the jail needed to be retrofitted, which cost taxpayers only $2.5 million because county employees were used on the project, Junior said.

So far, the most acutely ill inmates – about 150 of them – have been moved to TGK from the ninth floor and the majority of the 10th floor. They were loaded on a fleet of corrections buses late last month for the 8-mile drive to West Miami-Dade.

Federal officials have already toured the new facilities, as have elected officials.

On Tuesday, that included Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman, who chairs the public safety committee, and Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, who oversees the administration of the criminal division.

“It’s a world of difference,” Heyman said of the new facilities. “This is not only humane but will save people’s lives and also save money.”