Florida Prisons

More voices express concerns of abuse in Florida prisons

Darren Rainey, who died in a shower at Dade Correctional Institution
Darren Rainey, who died in a shower at Dade Correctional Institution Florida Department of Corrections

Windy Hempstead struggled to deliver her thoughts. Her brother, imprisoned for life, was recently placed in protective custody after exposing a penal culture rife with beatings and scaldings and other tortuous acts allegedly committed by guards.

Harold Hempstead’s tales of abuse led to an overhaul of the state’s prison system, including the firings of top officers, arrests and an investigation by federal law enforcement.

“I really don’t know where to begin,” said Windy Hempstead, seated in a conference room at the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida’s Biscayne Boulevard office in Miami. “It started so long ago.” The prison system, she said, is too damaged to be fixed.

Seated alongside Hempstead on Friday were former Dade Corrections Institution psychotherapist George Mallinckrodt and Steven Wetstein of Stop Prison Abuse Now, or SPAN. The three were on hand to support the ACLU of Florida and a coalition of advocacy groups that had just penned a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice demanding an intervention and reform of the state’s prison system.

The sweeping misdeeds by guards of the mentally ill and other inmates — much of the information provided by Harold Hempstead — have been aired the past 18 months in a series of Miami Herald articles that have shocked lawmakers and the public, leading to some intervention.

It all began with the story of Darren Rainey, a diminutive inmate at Dade Correctional who was serving a two-year sentence for drug possession.

In June 2012, after guards claimed Rainey had defecated in his cell, officers Cornelius Thompson and Roland Clarke led Rainey into a small shower stall, then cranked up the water to 180 degrees. Rainey couldn’t turn it off. Harold Hempstead, an orderly in the prison’s psychiatric ward, and other inmates said the guards ignored Rainey’s pleas for help and that when they returned two hours later the inmate had burned to death.

At first, Hempstead, now 39, confided only to doctors and nurses at the prison. Then in December 2012 he was transferred to another prison where he began talking to counselors. He wrote dozens of letters to Miami-Dade police, the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and the county medical examiner.

But it wasn’t until April 2014 that Hempstead contacted the Miami Herald through a friend. Those stories created change and the ACLU of Florida took notice. On Thursday, the ACLU and 14 human rights groups made their demand to the DOJ. The letter, addressed to Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant attorney general, outlined a series of atrocities and questioned the 346 deaths in Florida prisons in 2014, a 13 percent increase from the previous year.

“Conditions in Florida’s prisons are horribly brutal and they’re getting worse,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “The buck is supposed to stop at the governor’s office. Unfortunately he’s proven a lack of ability to keep people safe in Florida’s prisons.”

Mallinckrodt, who worked at DCI from 2008 through 2011 until his dismissal, said he repeatedly approached authorities about abuses and was mostly ignored. He considers Hempstead, who began a life of crime at 13 and was sentenced to 165 years in prison at the age of 22, courageous. Mallinckrodt worries for Hempstead’s safety.

“He is under constant threat of danger. [Prison guards] kill people who make noise. This is a historic fact: Guards kill inmates,” he said. “And now he’s isolated in protective custody, and that really, really, worries me.”