Miami-Dade County

4 years after inmate’s brutal death, no punishment

Supporters rally for prison reform on anniversary of inmate's death

A small group of protesters gathered outside the office of the Miami-Dade state attorney on June 23, 2016 to demand accountability for the death of inmate Darren Rainey in 2012.
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A small group of protesters gathered outside the office of the Miami-Dade state attorney on June 23, 2016 to demand accountability for the death of inmate Darren Rainey in 2012.

One thousand four hundred and sixty one days.

That’s how long it’s been since 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. It’s been four years since Rainey screamed and begged to be let out of the small stall before finally collapsing in a heap, his skin peeling.

Since Rainey’s death, it was discovered that he and other mentally ill inmates at the prison had been tortured, beaten, starved and left to sleep in their own excrement. They were doused with buckets of chemicals, over-medicated, kept in extended isolation and placed in painfully cold or blistering showers as punishment for behavior caused mostly by their own illnesses.

While Rainey’s death has led to some reforms in the treatment of the mentally ill in Florida prisons, the prison system remains dangerously understaffed and rife with violence, as evidenced by recent riots and turmoil at Franklin Correctional Institution in north-central Florida.

Details of the June 9 incident at Franklin haven’t been made public, and may never be known. The absence of transparency by the agency, critics say, has bred distrust and a lack of confidence that the prison system is truly taking the steps necessary to keep inmates, officers and the public secure.

“The bigger picture is that we have officers who are trying to maintain control through intimidation and violence,’’ said George Mallinckrodt, a psychotherapist who witnessed the mistreatment of inmates while working at Dade Correctional’s TCU, or transitional care unit, where Rainey died on June 23, 2012.

“What have we heard in terms of these brutal cases where Rainey and others have died? Is someone still working on it?’’ Mallinckrodt said. “These cases drift through time and you read the stories and you’re frustrated. Why is it taking so long to investigate?’’

Mallinckrodt and others with the group SPAN (Stop Prison Abuse Now) have organized a protest at 11 a.m. Thursday — the anniversary of Rainey’s death — at the offices of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle to call attention to the many still-unanswered questions about Rainey’s death.

Rundle’s office, as per policy, will not comment on ongoing investigations.

Public documents, including Rainey’s autopsy, have yet to be released. No one has been charged or disciplined, and, in fact, two of the corrections officers on duty that night were promoted after the incident. Another two left the agency, but kept their law enforcement certifications and obtained better police jobs. Miami-Dade police treated Rainey’s case as an unexplained in-custody death and didn’t investigate until two years later, when the Miami Herald began looking into his death and other suspicious deaths in the state prison system.

Four years after Rainey’s death, concerns are still being raised about whether the Department of Corrections is treating inmates with mental illness and other disabilities humanely. Two inmates died, reportedly while on suicide watch, at Charlotte Correctional Institution in Punta Gorda within the past year. Prison officials have said they killed themselves.

“There are still issues of adequate supervision in the prison system,’’ said Peter Sleasman, an attorney with Disability Rights Florida. “Both the inmates at Charlotte were in suicide observation, which is supposed to be a heightened level of observation. In spite of that, in two cases, people died when they shouldn’t have.’’

Disability Rights Florida, a federally funded group that advocates for inmates with disabilities, sued the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) in September 2014, alleging systematic abuse and discrimination of mentally ill inmates at Dade Correctional, which is near Homestead.

As part of a settlement, FDC agreed to work with Disability Rights Florida on reforms. New video equipment with audio capabilities has been installed to monitor inmates, the staff has been better trained and the facility now has adequate plumbing, air-conditioning and properly operating showers. But Sleasman said the agency still has a long way to go.

“Although some things have changed, it’s still fairly limited to Dade [Correctional] and it’s not reached the systemic level,’’ Sleasman said.

Inmates with mental health issues are still being kept in isolation in many facilities because the prison system doesn’t have the staff to escort people from their cells, he said.

“Just the act of getting out and participating in treatment is critically important,’’ he said. “If they don’t get out, and go to programs and get treatment, it becomes another form of solitary confinement, which exacerbates their illness.’’

Julie Jones, secretary for the Department of Corrections, declined to answer questions for this story about recent changes or planned improvements to the department’s mental health program.

You just don’t put someone who is mentally ill in a shower and leave them. No one has explained how this happened.

Peter Sleasman, Disability Rights Florida

In a written statement on Tuesday, Jones said she remains committed to reforms, not just at Dade Correctional, but throughout the prison system.

Rainey, who was sentenced to a two-year term for cocaine possession, suffered from severe schizophrenia and had been in prison for four months when he was locked in a shower chamber specially rigged to deliver 180-degree water through a hose from a neighboring janitorial closet.

“I am steadfast in my commitment to providing the highest possible level of treatment to inmates affected by mental health issues and will continue to improve access to behavioral health services statewide,’’ Jones said.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said that state lawmakers have saddled Jones with an almost impossible task — and because of that, the lessons of Rainey’s death may be for naught.

“The state Legislature has imposed on the department to use the prison system as an alternative to mental health treatment. If we continue to use the prisons as warehouses for people with mental illness and people with drug addictions, how can we say with confidence that something like this won’t happen again?’’ Simon said.

Rainey, who was sentenced to a two-year term for cocaine possession, suffered from severe schizophrenia and had been in prison for four months when he was locked in a shower chamber specially rigged to deliver 180-degree water through a hose from a neighboring janitorial closet.

Prisoners said that corrections officers Cornelius Thompson and Roland Clarke and others on the shift that night ridiculed Rainey as he kicked the locked door and begged to be let out. They left him there for between 1 1/2 and two hours, according to various staff reports. At some point he collapsed, falling face-up onto the drain.

Afterward, inmates wrote letters to the governor, the prison system’s inspector general, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Miami-Dade police, but nothing was done.

Harold Hempstead, an orderly in the unit who was there the night Rainey died, reached out to the Miami Herald in early 2014. He had kept a diary detailing the events leading up to and following Rainey’s death. Hempstead, a convicted burglar, has been interviewed by the FBI multiple times since the Herald reported on the case.

After he was threatened by corrections officers for reporting what he saw, Hempstead was placed in protective management and moved around the system. In recent weeks, he was transferred to Okeechobee Correctional Institution, where he has been denied the opportunity to speak by phone to his family or to the Herald. In letters to the newspaper, he said he was isolated because his life was threatened. A person with knowledge of the prison system confirmed a threat to his well-being had been received and was being investigated.

The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s autopsy report, the contents of which were leaked to the Herald, says that Rainey died from complications of schizophrenia, heart disease and “confinement” in the shower.

Rainey did not suffer any burns anywhere on his body, and investigators could not conclude that the specially rigged shower was “excessively” hot the day he collapsed, the report said. Sources said the medical examiner ruled that corrections officers had “no intent” to harm Rainey when they kept him in the shower for up to two hours.

Because of the medical examiner’s findings, federal prosecutors will be hard-pressed to prove a criminal case, law enforcement sources close to the investigation told the Herald this week.

“My feeling is whether this is called a criminal act or not, this should not have happened,’’ Sleasman said. “You just don’t put someone who is mentally ill in a shower and leave them. No one has explained how this happened.’’

Justice Department officials, in a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, acknowledged last year that they also were examining whether prison officials abused their positions of authority and whether there was a pattern and practice of civil rights violations in the prison.

Milton Grimes, the attorney representing Rainey’s family, said he is in the process of serving subpoenas on several of the principals in a civil rights lawsuit brought by Rainey’s family against the Department of Corrections.

He acknowledged that the case has been dragging on too slowly.

“I have concerns that witnesses will move away, that witnesses will change their minds, that people could intimidate cooperating witnesses. Now we’re going as fast as we can to get discovery and scheduling depositions,’’ said Grimes, a Los Angeles attorney best known for representing Rodney King, who was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991.

Jones, who was tapped by Gov. Rick Scott in January 2015 to take over the failing prison system, has said that many of the agency’s problems can be traced to excessive budget cuts by the Legislature. High turnover and inexperienced staff has been a dangerous combination at many prisons. Some facilities routinely operate at critical staffing levels — or the bare minimum needed to keep a prison secure.

The department has not said what prompted the siege at Franklin, where 300 inmates took over two dorms for several hours. Family members of inmates who contacted the Herald allege that the inmates became riled up after several officers began beating an African American inmate, calling him racial slurs. The dorms involved, known to house gang members, began a protest that escalated into them taking over two dorms, and destroying almost everything in the building. The uprising was quelled when inmates surrendered.

Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this story.

Other cases

In a separate action, Disability Rights Florida — which advocates for individuals with disabilities — filed a federal lawsuit in January against FDC, alleging systemic failures to comply with federal laws protecting disabled inmates. The group found 32 cases involving individuals with physical disabilities who were unable to receive medical care or prevented from participating in work or educational programs because of their disabilities.

Julie Jones statement

“It’s imperative for the public to know that the death of Darren Rainey has not gone unnoticed and that the humane treatment of inmates is our top priority. The Department has implemented wholesale improvements to the care and safety of mentally ill inmates along with all those incarcerated within Florida’s prison system. I am steadfast in my commitment to providing the highest possible level of treatment to inmates affected by mental health issues and will continue to improve access to behavioral health services statewide. In addition to security related policy changes, we have increased out of cell therapy time and added the use of cameras and technology in our mental health units. Additionally, the Department continues to offer further training for all staff who treat our increasing mental health population.”

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