Florida Prisons

Miami-Dade prison inmate death in shower ruled accidental, sources say

Darren Rainey
Darren Rainey Florida Dept. of Corrections

The death of Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate thrown into a steaming shower at Dade Correctional Institution in a case that sparked scrutiny on conditions inside Florida’s prison system, has been ruled accidental, the Herald has learned.

The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s autopsy report, completed this week, concluded that Rainey died from complications of schizophrenia, heart disease and “confinement” in the shower back in June 2012, according to multiple law enforcement sources.

Rainey, 50, 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 autopsy concluded that corrections officers had “no intent” to harm Rainey when they kept him in the shower for up to two hours.

The medical examiner’s office — more than three years after Rainey’s death, an unusually long time for a death investigation to last — gave its final autopsy report to Miami-Dade police and prosecutors this week. The autopsy report itself remains private because investigations remain ongoing.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office must now decide whether to charge corrections officers with committing a crime, such as manslaughter, for locking Rainey in the shower and leaving him. A spokesman declined to comment.

A federal criminal investigation is also continuing into Rainey’s death.

Rainey died at Dade Correctional Institution south of Homestead, a troubled facility where inmates have reported abuse and inspections have found unsanitary conditions.

News of the “accidental” ruling drew immediate criticism from Miami’s American Civil Liberties Union.

“I have not reviewed the M.E. report, but it defies logic that the conclusion is that Darren Rainey’s death was accidental,” said Howard Simon, the ACLU’s executive director in Florida.

“This is why we called for and still need an independent investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.”

Rainey’s death in the prison’s Transitional Care Unit, where inmates with mental illnesses are housed, was first reported by the Miami Herald. Those reports spurred a series of additional stories chronicling abuse of inmates in Florida prisons. For more than a year, the Herald has reviewed thousands of documents, conducted hundreds of interviews and visited prisons where prisoners have alleged they’ve seen or they themselves have been mentally, physically or sexually abused.

The articles led to a shakeup in the leadership at the Florida Department of Corrections and a series of reforms, including budgeting for more officers. In the wake of the stories, the corrections department also entered into a landmark lawsuit settlement with a statewide disability advocacy group, pledging to improve conditions for inmates with mental illnesses.

The corrections department said in a statement Friday that the agency will “remain committed” to working with investigators in the Rainey case.

“The Florida Department of Corrections has not yet received a copy of the medical examiner’s report. Upon our receipt and evaluation of this report, the department will act swiftly in initiating all appropriate investigations and internal reviews,” spokesman McKinley Lewis said.

Rainey died at Dade Correctional Institution south of Homestead, a troubled facility where inmates have reported abuse and inspections have found unsanitary conditions. Back in 2012, Rainey was serving a two-year prison term on a cocaine charge.

The correction department’s Office of the Inspector General had suspended its investigation into Rainey’s death as the medical examiner’s office continued its work and prosecutors had yet to conclude their probe.

Rainey suffered from heart disease and severe schizophrenia, for which he had been taking Haldol, a potent anti-psychotic drug that is known to elevate body temperatures and affect blood pressure and the heart, the autopsy reported, sources said.

On the day he died, Rainey had defecated in his cell, a possible psychotic episode spurred by his mental disorder, the report said, according to sources.

Prison officers took him to the small shower, which had been rigged to be controlled from an adjoining room, locked the door and left him there for up two hours as the stall filled with steam. Harold Hempstead, an inmate-orderly who was in a cell almost directly below the shower, told the Miami Herald he heard Rainey screaming for forgiveness.

When staff finally took Rainey out of the stall, his skin seemingly melted off — a condition known as “slippage” caused by prolonged exposure to water, humidity and the “warm, moist” environment, the autopsy reported, sources said.

He had no “thermal” injuries, or burns, on his body, the autopsy reported.

As staff administered CPR to Rainey, a nurse clocked his internal temperature at 102 degrees, well above the normal temperature of 98.6, the autopsy report said. Nearly 12 hours after his death, Rainey’s body still had a temperature of about 94 degrees.

Hempstead, a convicted burglar whose prison grievances and interviews with the Miami Herald first brought to light details of Rainey’s death, said he was shocked to learn that the death was ruled accidental. He told investigators, including those with the Justice Department, that the rigged shower was used on several other inmates with mental illnesses to terrorize them and keep them in line. The plumbing was dismantled after Rainey’s death.

Other inmates told the Herald and investigators that they heard corrections officers taunt Rainey as he screamed to be let out, although Hempstead did not hear that.

He said there were several showers closer to Rainey’s cell, and that the choice of this one — in which the controls were on the outside, inaccessible to Rainey — demonstrated the ill-intent of corrections officers.

“Obviously his life was of no value because he was a black, poor, mentally disabled, Muslim prisoner,” said Hempstead in a prison interview by telephone. “The decision shows that black lives don’t matter.”