Florida Prisons

Key accuser in Darren Rainey prison death case is ‘ghosted’ out of state

Harold Hempstead has been transferred in and out of five prisons in the past three years, mostly housed in “confinement,” separated from the general population, mixed among some of the system’s most violent and high-profile felons.

Hempstead, the key whistleblower in the death of Darren Rainey, has gotten this treatment since he accused prison guards at Dade Correctional Institution of killing Rainey by locking the inmate, who suffered from mental illness, into a hot shower and leaving him there for two hours, ignoring his panicked screams, until they discovered he was dead.

But on Friday — the same day the investigation of Rainey’s death was put to rest by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office — Hempstead was without warning transferred out of Florida to a prison in Tennessee, officials from the Florida Department of Corrections confirmed Tuesday.

The timing was coincidental, FDC says.

The move came hours before State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle cleared officers of wrongdoing and issued a close-out memo saying there was insufficient evidence that Rainey’s death was anything but an accident.

Although FDC says the Tennessee transfer hundreds of miles from Hempstead’s family has no connection to the Rainey case, the timing and abruptness of the move is concerning to his relatives, who were not told where he had been shipped until Monday.

“I kept asking them, ‘where’s my brother?’ and ‘why was he transferred out of state?’’’ said Hempstead’s sister, Windy, who last spoke to him on the phone Wednesday or Thursday.

Since leveling his accusation, Hempstead has been stripped of privileges earned through years of good behavior at a variety of prisons. A convicted burglar with no track record of violence, he has spent much of the past three years in “protective management,” a part of the prison he considers more dangerous than general population because of its isolation.

Hempstead has shared cells, on and off, with killers, despite classification systems that are intended to keep dangerous criminals and nonviolent offenders separate.

His sentence remains unchanged: He is not scheduled for release until Feb. 20, 2161.

At the time of his transfer, Hempstead, 41, was at Hardee Correctional in Bowling Green, about 45 miles southeast of Tampa, not far from where his relatives live. Windy Hempstead said family friends visited him last week and he was in good spirits and never mentioned anything about fearing for his safety.

Such out-of-state transfers, sometimes known as “ghosting,’’ are typically done when an inmate has been threatened or testified in major, high-profile cases.

“I know that it’s fairly rare to move an inmate like this, so if there is a reason, it must be serious,’’ said James V. Cook, a Tallahassee attorney who has taken up Hempstead’s cause. He said he had not been informed directly of what happened to Hempstead.

In a statement, FDC said the transfer was initiated “several weeks ago in response to his family and their representatives reaching out to the department, alleging he was unsafe, despite his repeated placement in protective management.’’

His sister, however, said she is his closest family member and that she has not submitted any recent requests to have him moved out of state. She wants him brought back.

“He was probably more at peace than I’ve ever seen him since this all happened,’’ she said.

In April 2014 — two years after Rainey’s death — Hempstead and other inmates reached out to the Miami Herald, claiming corrections officers at Dade CI had forced Rainey, 50, into a shower rigged so that guards could turn up the temperature to as high as 180 degrees, using controls in an adjoining room. Hempstead had repeatedly submitted written complaints, dozens of them, to the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office, to Miami-Dade police and to the Florida Department of Corrections’ inspector general’s office, all to no avail.

The officers, Hempstead and others claimed, used the shower in the prison’s mental health unit as a torture device to control unruly inmates, many of them so mentally impaired they would be unable to report what had been done to them.

Rainey, a man with severe schizophrenia who was serving two years for cocaine possession, had covered himself and his cell with feces when he was marched into the shower by corrections officers, who locked him in the narrow, closet-like room. Nearly two hours later, a guard who checked on him found him dead. As corrections officers pulled him out of the shower, his skin was peeling off his body.

But Miami-Dade police detectives said they found no evidence that the shower was hot enough to kill Rainey or that it had been used to harm other inmates in the prison’s mental health unit. They didn’t believe Hempstead and other inmates, who said they heard Rainey screaming and begging to be let out. No staff members reported hearing any screams.

Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Emma Lew ruled that Rainey’s death was the result of complications from schizophrenia, heart disease and “confinement in a shower.” The manner is listed as accidental.

The 101-page close-out report pointed to inconsistencies in Hempstead’s version of what happened, and paints him as a prisoner who was trying to influence other inmates to go along with a story that he had concocted. The report devotes eight pages to efforts to discredit information that Hempstead provided to police, the state attorney and the media.

Because of his sudden transfer, the Miami Herald has been unable to reach Hempstead to ask him about some of the assertions in the report — and give him an opportunity to dispute the findings.

Among other things, the investigators said that Hempstead did not provide a precise enough timeline — noting that his accounting of what happened when did not match surveillance video footage — and that he could not have seen all that he claimed to have seen because the window to his cell was covered up for part of the evening.

In an interview Tuesday, Rundle said Hempstead’s story was filled with inconsistencies that didn’t add up, calling it a “false narrative,” and noting that the medical examiner found that Rainey did not suffer burns.

Besides being unable to interview Hempstead, the Miami Herald has not been able to review the state attorney’s case file or listen to the interviews of other inmates. There is no indication in the close-out report that doctors in the unit were interviewed. Police also failed to turn on the shower and record the temperature. The inmates, plus nurses and most other staff, were not interviewed by authorities until two years after Rainey died.

Rundle’s prosecutors said it’s hard to know how that delay may have affected the case.

In the past, Hempstead’s sister has lobbied for him to be moved to a federal prison as a precaution against retaliation by state prison guards for making accusations against staff. A number of FDC staffers lost their jobs in the wake of the Rainey case and other revelations of alleged abuse, many of them in the Miami Herald.

But at Hardee, where he was finally allowed to be part of the general population, Windy Hempstead said he had been feeling more secure.

Ron McAndrew, a prison consultant and former Florida prison warden, said that once the officers in the Rainey case were cleared, it was prudent for FDC to move Hempstead.

“Once everybody is off the hook, so to speak, it’s time to take a deep breath and consider the possibility of retribution,’’ McAndrew said. “That’s something that any responsible warden or leadership in a correctional department is going to consider. It was just a wise decision to get him out of dodge.’’

FDC statement on Hempstead’s relocation

Inmate Harold Hempstead’s transfer was initiated several weeks ago in response to his family and their representatives reaching out to the department, alleging he was unsafe despite his repeated placement in protective management and relocation to five different institutions since 2012. The department’s chief priority is the safety and security of inmates, and in inmate Hempstead’s case Interstate Corrections Compact was determined to be in the best interest of his safety and security given the ongoing concerns of his family and representatives.

Any assertion that inmate Hempstead’s transfer was coordinated in connection to the Darren Rainey investigation is absolutely false. The transfer process, which was initiated several weeks prior to the release of the state attorney’s findings, was done solely in the interest of safety and security after all other means of protection had been exhausted in Florida.

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