Florida Prisons

Postcards from hell: Inmate’s manuscript describes horrors of Florida prison system

Four years ago, Harold Hempstead stunned the Florida prison system — and unleashed a major scandal — when he described to the Miami Herald how officers at Dade Correctional Institution had locked an inmate in a small, rigged shower room, turned the water on full hot and left him, screaming for mercy, for nearly two hours, until he collapsed and died, the skin peeling off his body.

Hempstead called it torture. A lot of people agreed.

The Miami-Dade state attorney and medical examiner called it an unfortunate accident. After a two-year investigation spurred by that and subsequent Herald articles, the prosecutor held no one accountable for the death of Darren Rainey, who was serving a short stint on a minor drug charge.

As a “reward” for speaking out, Hempstead says he was threatened by corrections staff, put in isolation, shuttled from prison to prison, and forced to share cells with drug fiends and killers before ultimately being exiled to the Tennessee prison system. But from afar, he is still taking shots at the Florida Department of Corrections, this time in a self-published book portrays what can only be described as a life lived in the pit of hell. He and the woman assisting him hope to have it available on Amazon by February at the latest.

Harold Hempstead has served 17 years for his role in a string of Florida burglaries. He was sentenced to 165 years. Florida Department of Corrections

Hempstead is far from unique in complaining about the brutalities and indignities of the Florida prison system from an inmate’s perspective. But he is one of the few to have the focus and dedication to write a more than 400-page book cataloging everything he saw and experienced. He calls it: “Department of Corruption: Darren Rainey, the Untold Story.”

What he relates is shocking: Guards occasionally starved inmates, feeding them meal-time “air trays” filled with nothing. And when food was actually delivered, it might be laced with urine, feces, laxatives, medication or cleaning chemicals. Inmates shivered and sweated through wildly gyrating temperatures in the un-air-conditioned units. The plumbing at one facility was so dismal that human waste would spill out onto the floor.

Hempstead has described in detail the makeshift Dade Correctional shower, whose flow and temperatures were controlled from a separate room. He said it was used to harass inmates, including Rainey, who had soiled himself. They could avoid the direct spray but not the brutally hot water lapping at their feet and could be overcome by the buildup of steam in the enclosure, he explained.

Gangs galore

Hempstead, who shared a manuscript with the Herald, writes about a system overrun with gang members, where inmates are routinely sliced from mouth to ear with makeshift blades. Those gashes, inflicted by fellow inmates, are called “buck fifties,” because they typically require 150 stitches to sew up. Hempstead says that when he was at prisons in Hardee and Okeechobee counties, buck fifties would happen one to three times a week.

Hempstead’s decision to tell the Miami Herald in 2014 about the brutal shower death of Rainey, an inmate suffering from mental illness, did not result in criminal charges, but it did spark a furor that would lead to reforms — including the exit of the secretary of the Department of Corrections, a heightened focus on investigating abusive officers and an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Officers at Dade Correctional Institution placed Darren Rainey in a makeshift shower with temperature controls in an adjoining room. Although inmates could avoid the direct spray, brutally hot water lapped at their feet and filled the chamber with steam, Harold Hempstead and other inmates told the Herald.

Despite these reforms, deaths in the Florida system, often violent or unexplained, have hit unprecedented heights in each of the past four years, including a 25 percent spike in the most recent fiscal year.

Hempstead’s agitating got him shipped out of the state for his own safety. The transfer to Tennessee has given him a basis for comparing and contrasting the two prison systems.

Hempstead grew up in Pinellas County, the product of poverty and squalor and drifted into crime. His father died when he was 7. His mother was mentally ill. While still in his mid-teens, he was recruited by police detectives to work as a paid operative, feeding information to the cops, he says and St. Petersburg police internal files confirm.

Before his prison sentence, Harold Hempstead lived a double life, fencing property, running an escort service and committing other crimes while doing paid work for a variety of St. Petersburg Police Department detectives. Hempstead family

At 22, Hempstead was sentenced to 165 years in prison for a series of burglaries. It was a startlingly stiff sentence for a nonviolent criminal, meted out by a judge notorious for intemperate outbursts and later for his exit from the bench amid a scandal involving the use of an official computer to access pornography. The 42-year-old inmate has maintained a record of exemplary behavior behind bars.

Hempstead believes his transfer to Tennessee in March 2017 was “100 percent to censor” him. He says officers woke him up around 3:30 a.m., slapped him and punched him in the back and advised him he had angered the wrong person before shipping him across state lines in a transport van.

Long before the Rainey case, Hempstead had become a prison system pest, submitting thousands of grievances to the FDC during his more than 17 years in the system, including dozens about the death of Rainey that were ignored. He shuttled between almost two dozen facilities in Florida, giving him a feel for the entire system.

He was especially horrified by the conditions at the Dade Correctional Institution’s transitional care unit — where those with mental health issues were held and where Rainey died on the floor of a shower stall, stripped of his skin — and the general population wings at Columbia and Martin Correctional Institutions.

Autopsy photo of Darren Rainey’s legs

Hempstead’s book, which compensates for its lack of polish with a stark authenticity, outlines his own platform for prison reform.

Among the issues he says he witnessed and wants addressed: prisoners with contagious diseases and infected wounds working in the chow hall; guards looking the other way as known sex offenders inappropriately touch children in visitation parks; disabled inmates who find it almost impossible to navigate physical barriers at archaic facilities; and lax security at the front and back gates, allowing inmates and staff to smuggle drugs and other contraband into the compound, fueling an out-of-control penal drug trade.

He says a perverse feature of the prison system is that inmates with special security needs, including former police officers, ex-judges, transgender individuals and those like himself who had incurred the wrath of staff, are placed in “protective management” units that can be more treacherous than the general population. He said that is because the PM staffers feel emboldened to impose harsh retribution away from the prying eyes of the general population and upper-level staff. He said PM also can house some of the most violent inmates in the system.

Hempstead lived in protective management units for nearly two years.

“We used to walk through a metal detector on our way to the chow hall, but who would bring a shank to a chow hall when you can just stab them in protective management?” Hempstead said. During his first few months at the protective management unit in Columbia’s Correctional Institution, Hempstead says staff found more than 20 ice picks.

His sister, Windy Hempstead, could not understand why her brother, a nonviolent offender, was grouped in with menacing, maximum-security inmates. Although she misses having him nearby, she believes he is better off in Tennessee, where Hempstead currently lives on an honor wing with other inmates who have good disciplinary records. Florida does not have a similar system but some inmate groups, like veterans, may be housed together.

Harold Hempstead and his sister, Windy, who supported his efforts to call attention to Darren Rainey’s death. Windy Hempstead

“It’s ridiculous. Protective custody should just be for the victims but it’s not and that’s just messed up,” she said.

Comparing prison systems

Hempstead says a benefit of being transferred to Tennessee is that it has allowed him to see how a better-run system operates. He said Tennessee’s system, which is much smaller than Florida’s, provides clear incentives and penalties to encourage good behavior and discourage bad. For instance, a Tennessee inmate can obtain at his own cost a television set and watch it in his cell as long as he doesn’t violate prison system rules. In Florida, there is one TV in the day room, with the program selection often controlled by the biggest, scariest offender, according to Hempstead. Tennessee inmates can earn extra commissary privileges or recreation time if they behave well. If they don’t, they can lose their ability to order Nike sneakers or a television.

In general, Florida inmates must serve a minimum of 85 percent of their sentence while Tennessee inmates can usually earn parole and a second chance through good behavior. Hempstead — a burglar, albeit with a string of convictions, who claims he really only fenced what other people stole — isn’t eligible for release for more than 100 years.

Florida allows inmates to request a transfer to one of a handful of facilities of their choosing after adhering to the rules for a period of years. But under a recent change, inmates cannot be housed in the county they are from. The rationale for the change was to make it more difficult for inmates to coordinate with outsiders to bring in contraband. Inmates are punished because the system hasn’t the staff, security or procedures to control what comes in.

The point, Hempstead said, is not to coddle criminals but to treat them as human beings in hopes they will develop into productive members of society with a sense of purpose and a moral core.

Hempstead, currently incarcerated at Tennessee’s Northeast Correctional Complex, says the difference can be as simple as addressing an inmate as “sir,” which some Tennessee staffers do, rather than cursing them, which he says is common in Florida. The first time he was addressed as “sir,” upon arriving in Tennessee, it shocked him.

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Darren Rainey was 50 when he died after being locked in a specially rigged shower at Dade Correctional Institution in 2012. Florida Department of Corrections

Hempstead said Tennessee provides genuine avenues for inmates to prepare for a life outside prison. They can take skill-based classes, like cosmetology, barbering and welding. Earlier this year, Florida slashed funding for prisons, curtailing or eliminating re-entry and work-release services that prepare inmates for life after imprisonment. The department says vocational programs weren’t curbed.

Hempstead said Tennessee puts a premium on ensuring that prisoners without a high-school diploma work toward a GED. It operates a fully accredited school system, offering Adult Basic Education at every facility. Florida does not offer such services at every facility although it does say “major institutions” offer programs that lead to a GED.

Windy Hempstead said she believes her brother is safer and “more at peace” in Tennessee but that the inmates in Florida he left behind are like family to him.

Officials with the Florida Department of Corrections declined to comment on whether they would consider what Hempstead has to say in his new book.

“All inmates can make formal grievances with the department for any complaints or issues during their incarceration,” an FDC spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The department’s chief priority is the safety and security of inmates. All inmates are housed and supervised appropriately according to their classification status, which accounts for their risk of posing a danger to those around them.”

The agency did dispute some allegations. For instance, Patrick Manderfield, the FDC spokesperson, said inmates who are medically unfit or have contagious illnesses are not allowed to work in food service, and prison staff supervise visitation and do not tolerate inmates making inappropriate contact with anyone.

At the time of Darren Rainey’s death, on June 23, 2012, Hempstead enjoyed special privileges in the transitional care unit as an orderly. He had freedom of movement inside the prison and helped with the delivery of food, which is where he learned of some of the more pernicious abuses by prison staff.

It is where he learned about “air trays” and the deliberate contamination of food, as well as some of the other customs.

He said “chemical warfare” is when guards place bleach and ammonia in prisoner’s cells, usually to get inmates who are supposed to wear handcuffs to agree to be shackled. The chemicals would irritate their eyes, nose and breathing and they would usually comply within five minutes. Hempstead was often enlisted to help guards do this but sometimes poured the chemicals down the sink.

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Protesters raise signs as State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle speaks during a Miami-Dade Democratic Party meeting to discuss a proposal to rebuke her over failing to mount a criminal case against the guards accused of putting inmate Darren Rainey in a searing shower until he died. The meeting was at the AFL-CIO union hall in Miami Springs on May 30, 2017. At the time she was considering a campaign for statewide office, but eventually opted not to run. PEDRO PORTAL pportal@miamiherald.com

A “loaf” is what inmates could be forced to eat when they were being disobedient. It is created when the meal is blended into a single, mashed-together amalgam. It tastes terrible. He said corrections officers would falsely accuse inmates of throwing their food trays as justification for putting them on a “loaf” diet.

“I don’t gamble but if I did I would bet that eight out of 10 times it’s staff setting up inmates” because they did something to upset them, Hempstead said, noting that food is often the most important thing to those in confinement. They love to eat because they don’t have other things they can do, he said.

Hempstead believes two inmates at Dade Correctional, including a blind man, were spitefully deprived of food for so long that they died. When inmates received “air trays,” he would try to smuggle them bags of chips when the corrections officers weren’t looking.

“Going psych” is when inmates fake psychological problems so they can be transferred to a crisis stabilization or transitional care unit. Prisoners may cut their wrists, express suicidal thoughts or wipe feces on themselves as a way to get into a TCU and away from staffers or fellow inmates who are tormenting them.

A prisoner on “hands off” status is one who has protection from the staff.

Hempstead is concerned that Roland Clarke, the staff member who placed the 50-year-old Rainey in the shower, not only avoided criminal prosecution but was effectively rewarded with a much higher-paying job, as an officer with the Miami Gardens Police Department. A recent story in the Miami New Times described how Clarke was investigated for improperly consorting with women while supposedly on duty protecting the public.

In deciding not to prosecute Clarke, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle questioned Hempstead’s credibility, suggesting his detailed timeline did not line up precisely with what the surveillance cameras showed. The closeout report also stated the investigators could not determine the shower’s temperature.

Hempstead’s retort: “The Rainey case sends out a big resounding statement to all Florida prison staff that Officer Clarke got away with Rainey so you guys can get away with anything.”

Culture of impunity

Hempstead worries that a culture of impunity, as exemplified in that case and others, will extend itself to all sorts of harsh behavior, including starving and beating inmates.

If he could convince only one person to read his book, he wishes it could be the next governor of Florida, who could actually provide leadership and impose reforms.

What Hempstead experienced and saw is a symptom of a much larger problem, according to Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.

“It is overly simplistic to say that the guards are all monsters. The guards are not monsters,” Simon said.

What they are is poorly paid, receiving a starting salary of $33,500, which is actually a dramatic improvement from what officers were making when Rainey died at Dade Correctional.

“The Department of Corrections and their staff have been put in an impossible position by our Legislature,” Simon said. “They have created a perfect storm in which there are not enough guards, too many inmates and budget cuts.”

After the Herald wrote about Rainey’s death and the fear of retribution against the whistleblowing inmate, including a story labeling him the Caged Crusader, a nickname that stuck, the ACLU gave Hempstead its Maurice Rosen Act of Courage Award — in absentia, of course. His sister received it in his stead.

“Harold Hempstead is no saint but he displayed truly heroic courage with what he did,” said Simon, who is retiring from the ACLU after four decades, serving in Florida and Michigan. “He put his own life at risk. That cannot be forgotten.”

So, how does a prisoner publish a book?

Judy Lessler is an atheist. She could never have imagined sitting down to read a book about the philosophical foundations of Christianity. But that’s exactly what she did, so she could have a meaningful conversation with Hempstead. She read about him in the New Yorker magazine, which did a long story on the Rainey case, highlighting Hempstead’s role and noting his deep religious faith.

After Harold Hempstead told the Herald about the brutal death of fellow inmate Darren Rainey, he faced recriminations in the Florida prison system.

Hempstead was born Christian but he only really embraced his Protestant beliefs in prison. Lessler asked if he still wanted to communicate, knowing that she was an atheist. He said he did. They have been talking ever since. And now Lessler, a farmer in North Carolina, is helping him publish his words.

Hempstead first thought about writing a book in 2014 but started working on it in earnest last November in Tennessee. He would spend 10 to 12 hours a day writing it on paper, relying on his memory and old journal entries.

Lessler is teaching herself how to navigate copyright rules and format the book for Amazon.

“Even though I’m an atheist, I was raised in the church and they said one of the things you’re supposed to do is visit people in prison,” Lessler said.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that he is in prison for as long as he is for what he did,” Lessler said.

What doesn’t make sense to Hempstead is that after six years, innumerable grievances, stories in the Miami Herald and the New Yorker and various TV stations and state and federal investigations, the Florida Department of Corrections has not to this day talked to him about what he saw the day Darren Rainey died.