Harold Hempstead is a man with two conflicting narratives. One is a criminal past that sent him to prison for life. The other, a courageous pursuit of justice that has shaken the corrupt and crumbling foundation of Florida’s prison system.
Hempstead didn’t set out to be a hero and, perhaps to some people, he isn’t a hero at all. But it is likely that no one would have ever known about the death of a mentally ill inmate named Darren Rainey, or about the systemic culture of physical and mental abuse of inmates in Florida prisons, had it not been for Hempstead.
Hempstead’s steadfast determination to expose the monstrous acts he says he witnessed ultimately brought about an overhaul of the prison system, the firings of top corrections officials and officers, federal arrests and an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Hempstead did all this from a prison cell — and in spite of threats, intimidation and a haunting fear that one day he would suffer “an accident” and never wake up.
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“What he did took real courage,” said Malcolm Tomlin, a retired Florida corrections officer and prison minister who led Bible studies with Hempstead at Dade Correctional Institution.
“He saw something was wrong and he took a stand. … He was blackballed with the officers. That will go with him wherever he is sent. But he did what was right.”
Hempstead reached out to the Miami Herald — ultimately maintaining a correspondence and engaging in regular phone calls, one as as recently as Friday — after authorities ignored his pleas to investigate the death of Rainey.
The convicted burglar didn’t always do the right thing. At the age of 13, Hempstead was already stealing and getting into trouble on the streets of St. Petersburg, where he grew up the youngest of three siblings. While still at 16th Street Middle School in St. Petersburg, he was recruited by detectives, who paid him handsomely to give them intelligence that helped them solve crimes, according to confidential police reports obtained by the Herald with Hempstead’s permission.
By his early 20s, however, he had started to fall out of favor with police, some of whom tried to arrest him a couple of times, not knowing that he was engaged in intelligence gathering for another detective squad. One time, he was charged with conspiracy to commit murder, but the charge was dropped after the cops accepted his explanation that he was playing a role, setting up a drug dealer, the records show.
But it was a dog named Molly that really led to his undoing.
In 1999, police investigating a rash of burglaries in his neighborhood found the dead German shepherd’s ashes in a stolen urn, along with about $200,000 in pilfered loot stashed in a U-Haul at his home. He was charged with 38 burglaries.
Though he had no history of violence, the judge, calling him “a despicable human being,” sentenced him to 165 years in prison. He was just 22 when he entered the Florida prison system.
Pinellas County Circuit Judge Brandt Downey III, accused prior to that of tainting jurors, was later defrocked in a pornography scandal.
For all intents and purposes, time has no meaning for Hempstead, who is now 39. He unsuccessfully appealed his sentence, and sued or filed hand-written motions against the police, the judge, the prosecutor and even his own lawyer.
Over the past 15 years, Hempstead has developed a deep religious faith and now worships and reads the Bible daily. He has enrolled in dozens of correspondence courses, earning certifications in everything from paralegal work to mopping up hazardous materials. Eventually, in 2010, he was trusted enough to move freely about the confinement units — a more restrictive form of incarceration than general population — as an orderly at Dade Correctional Institution south of Homestead.
The facility, set amid farm stands and alligator swamps on the edge of the Florida Everglades, has been described — even by staff and officers who work there — as a squalid, un-airconditioned, putrid hell. Up until late last year, the roofs, the plumbing and the electrical systems were deteriorated, and the kitchen was so filled with rodent droppings and infested with roaches that it flunked several health inspections and was designated a health hazard during an audit last year.
“In many housing units, it was not possible to turn showers and faucets off completely, but in one dorm the drain was so clogged that water ran out on the housing floor. In D housing unit, there was a broken light fixture hanging from the ceiling above an occupied bunk,” auditors found, among other hazards listed in the report.
Hempstead had already seen the inside of almost half of Florida’s 49 state-run prisons, and to him, Dade really wasn’t any worse than the others.
By that time, he said, he was used to seeing horrible things in Florida prisons: inmates being starved, beaten, sexually assaulted, mentally tortured by officers and gassed for no reason. Officers putting laxatives in inmates’ food, urinating on their clothing and toothbrushes and paying inmates to attack other inmates. Sick inmates begging for medical care, only to be told they were faking. Even basic necessities like soap and toilet paper were often rationed to make their lives more miserable.
But at Dade, while working in the TCU, or transitional care unit that houses mentally ill inmates, he said he witnessed officers punish and torture prisoners who were the most vulnerable — those who were so sick they had no control over their faculties.
Hempstead grew up around mental illness. His father, an alcoholic, died when he was 7, and he and his brother and sister were raised by their mother, who was committed to psychiatric hospitals off and on for as long as a year.
“I did want to help my mom out with the issues she had, going in and out of hospitals. She would tell me about the things that happened to her, being tied down and stuck with needles. As a child I couldn’t help my mom out and I wanted to,” Hempstead said.
He tried helping some of the inmates at Dade, slipping them food or arranging to get prisoners a mattress when they had none. But, in many instances, there was really nothing he could do without being punished himself, so he did what he was ordered to do — even if it meant preparing a bucket of chemicals to be thrown on an inmate to get him to behave.
Then, in January 2012, the guards came up with an even more creative and sinister way to torture prisoners in the mental health unit: placing them in scalding hot showers to control them.
“Then it hit me,” Hempstead recalled. “It felt like 1,000 pounds of sadness fell on me. It overtook me. I was in my cell crying. I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Taunted and tormented
On June 23, 2012, Darren Rainey, a 5-foot-6 inmate, was handcuffed by officers. Rainey, 50, had been at Dade only a few months and was serving a two-year term for drug possession.
Rainey, a Muslim with whom the Christian Hempstead had little in common and scant contact, suffered from severe schizophrenia. On that evening, on the pretext that Rainey had misbehaved by defecating in his cell, two officers, Cornelius Thompson and Roland Clarke, the latter a 6-foot-4, 300-pound former college football lineman, led him to a 12-by-3 shower stall.
They threw him a bar of soap, locked the door, then turned on the water, which was cranked up to more than 180 degrees. According to Hempstead and other inmates interviewed by the Herald over the past year, the officers laughed and taunted Rainey as he begged for forgiveness, gasping for air in the scalding steam. They then left, and when they returned nearly two hours later, Rainey was dead, with pieces of his skin floating in the water.
Inmates would later say they were ordered by officers to clean up the shower with bleach, throw away the fragments of his skin and never speak about what happened or, they were told, they, too, would face the same fate as Rainey.
“The shower treatment,” as it was called, was used by officers on other inmates, Hempstead explained in one of many interviews with the Herald. It was first used to control inmate Daniel Geiger, who chattered incessantly, annoying officers. The guards sometimes purposefully placed him in a cell next to another inmate they wanted to punish.
“Geiger was the loudest inmate in the unit. He was 110 pounds and constantly being deprived of food. I would have thought if anyone would have collapsed and died it would have been him,” Hempstead said.
He recalled that one of the inmates suggested putting Geiger into the shower to shut him up, and it worked.
“He kept screaming, ‘It’s hot, get me out of here!’ Then, after 10 or 20 minutes, he stopped yelling. I think they put him in there three or four times,” Hempstead said.
As the orderly who served inmates their food trays, Hempstead saw how the officers devised a system for depriving prisoners of food, sometimes for weeks. They came up with names for this treatment, possibly inspired by football terminology.
“A two-point conversion meant no lunch or dinner for two days. A six-point conversion was no lunch or dinner on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.”
Some inmates dropped so much weight that Hempstead said one guard — a sergeant since promoted to lieutenant — would proudly announce “Welcome to Auschwitz,” when someone new came into the unit.
Hempstead said hungry inmates would break sprinklers just so they would be charged criminally with vandalism and be transported to the Dade County Jail — where they would finally be fed.
“It was definitely evil. There were times when they were laughing as they were starving inmates. A lot of it was hard to deal with,” he said.
Although the autopsies give another cause, Hempstead believes two deaths that occurred while he was working in the TCU could be attributed to the punitive lack of feeding.
“You know, I made a lot of mistakes in my life, but nothing I did resulted in somebody dying,” he said.
Hempstead was initially apprehensive about reporting what he saw. At first, he quietly confided in the doctors and nurses who worked for Corizon, the private healthcare company contracted by the state to provide medical and psychiatric care for inmates.
But it soon became apparent as the months went by that they would do nothing.
“I threatened the doctors, told them, ‘If you don’t do this, I’m going to get your license.’ They took an oath. I just wanted them to report it, but they wouldn’t,” Hempstead said.
The corrections officers grew bolder and began other abusive tactics on the inmates. Sometimes, they would place a violent inmate in the same cell with a smaller prisoner they wanted to punish and walk away, allowing the brutal inmate to beat or sexually assault the other inmate, Hempstead said.
In December 2012, Hempstead was transferred out of Dade Correctional to another prison, and it was then that he began in earnest to report what was happening at the prison.
At one prison, he spoke to a psychiatric counselor.
“I told her what they were doing and she looked at me like I was telling her a story out of a horror movie. A week later, she said, ‘We’re going to talk about something else.’ She didn’t want to talk about Dade anymore,” Hempstead said.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, other inmates who had been transferred out of Dade were also reporting what happened. Their complaints to the Department of Corrections also went unheeded.
Dade’s former warden, Jerry Cummings, in an interview last year, admitted he heard that inmates in the mental health unit weren’t being fed, but said he couldn’t do anything about it because he couldn’t prove it.
The cameras in the unit, he said, only captured the guards giving the inmates trays; it was not discernible whether the trays had food on them, he said. In prison parlance, an empty tray is known as an air tray.
“I would walk in there and the inmates would beg for food, for soap, for a toothbrush,” Cummings said. “The officers held all the power and if they didn’t want to feed them, they wouldn’t feed them.”
Records show that Hempstead wrote dozens of letters and complaints about the abuse throughout 2013, sending them to the Department of Corrections, to Miami-Dade police, to the Miami-Dade medical examiner and to the office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, which inexplicably returned them, telling him to write to the state attorney in Pinellas County, where Hempstead was convicted. All the crimes he alleged happened were in Miami-Dade, not Pinellas.
He wrote to Gov. Rick Scott, who took office in 2011 pledging to slash $1 billion out of the Department of Corrections, the state’s largest agency. Scott’s office forwarded Hempstead’s complaints to Jeffery Beasley, the DOC’s inspector general. They were all returned to Hempstead with no action, for various reasons. Among them: that he filed the wrong form or that his grievance didn’t affect him personally.
“I had written a dozen or more letters, with maps of the shower, maps of the TCU. I sent them to the medical examiner and Miami-Dade police, but nothing happened,” Hempstead recalled.
For two years, Rainey’s case languished in the case files of Miami-Dade police, who were entrusted with investigating it; and with the Department of Corrections, whose inspector general’s office suspended its investigation four months after his death, in October 2012, with no action.
It appeared that Rainey’s death would be written off as just another in-custody death, likely the result of natural causes. Rainey’s brother, Andre Chapman, who lives in Tampa, said the only thing he was told about his brother’s death was that he suffered a heart attack.
“If someone put you or I in a scalding shower like that, I think we might die of a heart attack, too,” said Chapman’s attorney, Milton C. Grimes.
Hempstead, meanwhile, was shuffled around the prison system, and with each stop, it seemed the officers knew about him and his crusade. They made it clear they wanted him to shut up.
“It started with them searching me and ransacking my cell,” he said. At the prison system’s Reception and Medical Center, north of Gainesville, one officer reminded him how officers at the prison used to kick the gold teeth out of inmates’ mouths — and said they used to bury other inmates in the rec yard.
“He said, ‘You know, people can just die here. Some people die from luck.’ I asked him what he meant and he said, ‘It would be luck for us, not luck for them.’’’
Hempstead was sent back to Dade in June 2013 — a year after Rainey’s death. Clarke — one of the officers who forced Rainey into the shower — was in charge of his dorm.
“He started calling me his dog, and he was bragging about beating the Rainey rap,” Hempstead said.
Then one day, in April 2014, Hempstead enlisted a friend on the inside of the prison to call the Miami Herald. In order for a reporter to interview Hempstead, he was told he needed to write the Herald, giving its representative permission to visit him.
The first letter he wrote to the Herald was seized by the officers. At 3 o’clock in the morning, Hempstead said he was led into a control room, where the guards forced him on the floor and interrogated him for more than an hour, demanding to know why he was writing to a journalist. They vowed to throw him in solitary confinement — forever, if necessary, unless he kept quiet.
“My biggest fear was going to confinement because I had seen plenty of things that they did to inmates in confinement. It’s easy for them to put medicine in your food; you can O.D. an inmate. I worked there and knew all their tricks,” Hempstead said.
He was scared but pressed on. An interview with the Herald was finally arranged, then abruptly canceled by the DOC. It was rescheduled. By then, a reporter had started digging, and submitting public records requests to the police, the medical examiner and the prison agency.
Hempstead was also submitting public records requests from behind bars. He ordered reports from the police, the prison system and other agencies.
On May 23, 2014, the Herald published the first in what would be a series of stories about Rainey and other suspicious deaths and assaults of inmates in Florida prisons.
Over the past year, the agency’s secretary was replaced, wardens and corrections officers were fired, the FBI made arrests, the state Legislature called for hearings, and the governor and new secretary, Julie Jones, enacted reforms. Partly because of prodding by a civil lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Florida, Dade’s transitional care unit has been renovated, complete with new surveillance cameras, TVs and a wall mural.
Despite all that’s been done, Rainey’s case remains open, his autopsy is still filed away in the medical examiner’s office and his family hasn’t been told how and why he died.
To this day, no one from the Department of Corrections has interviewed Hempstead about Rainey. In a statement Friday, the agency said it continues to cooperate with other law enforcement agencies investigating the case.
“In my opinion, because Rainey was black, poor and mentally ill, to a lot of people his life had no significance,” Hempstead said recently. “But to me, if we have that opinion on the value of life, and if staff thinks they can get away with killing inmates, then they are going to get away with anything.’’
These days, corrections officers and some inmates call Hempstead “Miami Harold,” owing to his frequent talks with Herald journalists. His friends and family continue to refer to him as Joey, his middle name.
Because Florida has no parole, he must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence, despite an exemplary record behind bars that has shaved a few years off his sentence. He is not scheduled to be released until 2161, nearly a century and a half from now.
Like Hempstead, some 60 percent of Florida’s 100,000 inmates are serving time for nonviolent crimes. Florida is second only to Louisiana among states with the largest number of inmates serving life for nonviolent crimes, according to a 2013 analysis of state and federal statistics by the American Civil Liberties Union.
At the time Hempstead was sentenced in 2000, Judge Downey told him: “I hope you die in prison.”
“The problem with Mr. Hempstead is he thought he was smarter than everybody else,” said Downey, now retired and living in Indiana. “He was arrogant, abrasive, sort of an ‘I know better than you’ kind of person.”
The prosecutor, Pat Siracusa, recalls that, at the time, Hempstead’s case was one of the biggest burglary trials in Pinellas County. It involved more than 80 witnesses and 350 pieces of evidence. Hempstead was accused of being the mastermind behind a burglary ring that stole everything from deer antlers to gold watches.
At trial, his accomplice testified that Hempstead taught him everything, right down to picking out which residences to break into, how to get in and how to get out undetected.
“He hit neighborhoods he was familiar with, places where he had cut lawns,” Siracusa said of Hempstead. “It was a lot of stuff and a lot of lives that were disrupted.”
Hempstead insists he didn’t break into homes, but acknowledges he fenced stolen goods. The accomplice who fingered him served no time in prison.
One of the victims, Jeff Fineran, said he had about $7,000 worth of property stolen, though he managed to have some of it returned. He recalls wanting Hempstead to get a stiff sentence, but was surprised at just how harsh it was.
“He didn’t take somebody’s life,” Fineran said. “I think he should have a long sentence but not where he won’t ever have a free breath of air. Forgive and forget. All I can do is pray for him.”
Siracusa, who is now a judge, remains convinced that Hempstead deserves to be behind bars. But he declined to comment on whether, had he been the judge, he would have imposed a 165-year sentence.
Bob Dillinger, who has been public defender in Pinellas County since 1997, doesn’t recall the case, but he did remember Hempstead’s judge. Dillinger once attempted to have Downey removed from 200 cases because the judge made derogatory comments about a defendant to a jury.
Downey later acknowledged his comments in that case were improper and sent letters of apology to the six jurors who decided the case in 1999.
Downey, a 17-year veteran of the bench, continued to generate controversy, including accusations that he made improper utterances toward female litigators. And in 2005, after a virus infected the courthouse computer system, technicians tracked the problem down to Downey, who had been using his office laptop to look at pornography.
He retired a year later as part of what was essentially a plea deal brokered with the Judicial Qualifications Commission that was approved by the Florida Supreme Court.
The judge’s comments from the bench in Hempstead’s case should have been enough to grant him a new sentencing, said Jeff Weiner, a Miami criminal defense attorney and former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
“That judge made comments that were completely inappropriate and out of context to the crime that he committed,” Weiner said.
Hempstead is now housed at Columbia Correctional Institution in north-central Florida, one of the state’s toughest prisons. State corrections officials call his status “protective management.” He believes that is a misnomer, and that protective management is one of the most dangerous places in a prison.
“I’ve been through just about everything you can be subjected to in prison just short of being killed,” said Hempstead. He spends most of his days in a 12-by-10 cell with no air conditioning.
After his most recent transfer out of Dade — for his own safety, after the Herald quoted him by name, with his permission — he lost all the privileges he enjoyed while working as an orderly.
Hempstead is now linked to “a high-profile investigation,” and has limited privileges. He is allowed to go to chapel two hours a week and has access to gym equipment. Still, in the summer, when temperatures climb to 90 degrees or more, inmates sleep on the concrete floor, along with rodents and insects.
The others in protective management include some of the most vicious inmates at Columbia, some of them placed there after they were accused of beating or sexually assaulting other inmates.
“I just thought, what kind of a place did they send me to? It seemed like a killing ground of inmate violence,” Hempstead said.
He has filed a lawsuit — the latest in a series of long, handwritten court pleadings over the years — seeking release into the general prison population, saying that he has been traumatized by all the violence he has witnessed in Florida prisons.
“What rationale is there that he gets a longer sentence than most people who commit murder?” asked Howard Finkelstein, Broward County’s chief public defender.
“The interests of all people in Florida have been served by this man by revealing the horrors and violence of both corrections officers and inmates. Because of him, we are the better for it.”
Since Harold Hempstead revealed details of the death of Darren Rainey, a series of changes have occurred, including:
1) Corrections officers in the mental health ward at Dade Correctional have been reassigned. The two officers most directly involved in putting Rainey in the scalding shower have left the agency. The warden and assistant warden were forced to retire.
2) The U.S. Justice Department initiated an investigation into Rainey's death.
3) The head of the prison system, then-Secretary Michael Crews, instituted crisis-intervention training for corrections officers, two new centers to help inmates re-enter society and new policies aimed at improving accountability among officers.
4) Crews turned 82 inmate death investigations over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and FDLE was assigned to handle most future in-custody death investigations.
6) Crews ordered a department-wide audit of use of force against inmates, which had doubled over the past five years.
7) Crews summarily fired over 32 corrections officers involved in excessive force against inmates.
8) Dade Correctional's mental health unit was renovated to include high-tech cameras with audio, televisions and murals. An ombudsman was assigned to oversee patient treatment and care.
11) Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order calling for an independent audit of the entire prison system, focusing on staffing, organization and ways to improve safety, security and the rehabilitation of inmates.
12) New surveillance camera systems were ordered installed throughout the prison system, and Jones has proposed putting air conditioning in all facilities.