After latest death, Florida prison system faces more scrutiny

Florida’s Department of Corrections is facing a third potential criminal probe in the wake of another inmate death at a state prison.

State officials confirmed that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the Thursday morning death at Charlotte Correctional Institution on the Gulf Coast.

Damion Foster, 36, died following an altercation with corrections officers in the prison’s mental-health unit, a source close to the case told the Miami Herald.

The incident intensifies the spotlight on the Department of Corrections, an agency already facing criticism over the unexplained deaths of two other inmates.

Miami-Dade police are investigating the June 23, 2012, death of 50-year-old Darren Rainey, a mentally-ill inmate at Dade Correctional Institution who was found lifeless in a small, enclosed shower at the prison.

Rainey, serving two years on a cocaine charge, was placed in the shower by prison guards and left there for more than an hour, allegedly under a spray of water heated to in excess of 160 degrees. He was placed in the shower for a prolonged period as punishment after defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up, according to repeated written grievances filed by Harold Hempstead, a burglar who was an orderly in the mental-health unit. Hempstead said he was assigned to a cell beneath the shower and could hear Rainey screaming for mercy.

George Mallinckrodt, a psychotherapist who formerly worked in the ward, told the Herald that the controls inside the shower were broken and the guards controlled the temperature from the main shut-off value.

When Rainey was found, he was so badly burned that portions of his skin had slipped from his body, a witness and several former employees at the prison told the Herald.

His cause of death has not yet been released by the medical examiner and the death remains unclassified by Miami-Dade police, the lead investigative agency.

On Thursday, DOC Inspector General Jeffrey Beasley announced that he planned to meet with police next week to discuss the Rainey case.

“If the evidence provided by MDPD indicates any criminal activity or inappropriate behavior, DOC will immediately take the appropriate action with those responsible,’’ Beasley said in a written statement.

In April, eight corrections officers were suspended and one fired following the death at Charlotte Correctional of Matthew Walker, 45. According to Gulf Coast station NBC2, Walker was slapped by a female corrections officer while in his cell, and then other corrections officers got involved and Walker ended up dead.

A DOC spokeswoman said Thursday that the agency continues to cooperate with the FDLE.

Foster died when corrections officers were attempting a “cell extraction,’’ the source told the Miami Herald.

The DOC “is prepared to take immediate action to ensure accountability, based on the outcome of the investigation and the medical examiner’s report,’’ agency spokeswoman Jessica Cary said.

Foster was suicidal, but it’s not known how or why he died, sources said.

Foster previously was an inmate in the mental unit at Dade Correctional Institution, which has faced criticism for its treatment of inmates other than Rainey.

Foster was housed there in September when Richard Mair, another mentally-ill inmate, hanged himself, a source privy to Mair’s case told the Herald.

Mair, serving time for murder, left a note alleging a litany of cruel acts and punishments inflicted upon the mentally-ill prisoners by the prison’s corrections staff, including forcing inmates to fight each other in the yard for the entertainment of guards and making them perform sex acts. Mair’s note cited specific alleged events and named officers.

The DOC has not yet provided the Herald with a response to its request as to whether the agency ever investigated the allegations in Mair’s suicide note. The note is not mentioned in the DOC inspector general’s report on his death.

Two corrections officers were suspended and one was fired in connection with Mair’s suicide, but not because of what was in the note. DOC officials concluded the suicide could have been prevented if the officers had conducted the required inmate checks.

Foster was transferred out of the prison shortly after Mair’s death .

Mallinckrodt, who worked in Dade Correctional’s mental-health ward, known as the Transitional Care Unit, from 2008 to 2011, told the Herald on Monday that corrections officers in the unit have gotten away with tormenting and abusing the inmates for years. Mallinckrodt, who said he was told he was discharged for taking long lunches, said he communicated his concerns to the Department of Corrections and wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Rainey was not the only prisoner who got the shower treatment, according to Hempstead.

Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce Hyma said in a written statement that Rainey’s autopsy was completed more than 18 months ago, but he hasn’t ruled on a cause or manner of death because the police probe has been pending.

“We are waiting on law enforcement information to interpret the medical findings,’’ Hyma said.

Miami-Dade police did not preserve a copy of the 911 call from the prison, which may have provided the circumstances of Rainey’s death as described by prison staff.

Such calls are kept for 60 days, and there was no evidence the death was suspicious at the time, Miami-Dade police spokeswoman Nancy Perez said.