After grisly death, Florida prisons overhaul care for mentally ill

Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews
Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews MIAMI HERALD FILE PHOTO

Florida’s prison system — where mentally ill inmates say they have been deliberately starved, gassed for the amusement of guards and punched and kicked without provocation — is overhauling the way it handles mentally impaired inmates.

The reforms were announced Friday by Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews. The changes include the appointment of a mental health ombudsman, the expansion of crisis intervention training for officers and the creation of specialized training for staff in the prison system’s inpatient units.

It took the death of Darren Rainey — a prisoner at Dade Correctional Institution who was herded into a locked, scalding shower as punishment and left there, pleading for mercy until he collapsed — to bring about change.

The Rainey case was exposed by the Miami Herald, which reported that the prison system and the Miami-Dade Police Department both had ignored complaints by inmates and others that the 50-year-old was the victim of a homicide.

“Clearly, I think the Rainey case brought to light for us that we needed to take a hard look at how we train, how we prepare, how we respond and how we recognize some of the behaviors that maybe historically have been viewed as an inmate wanting to be noncompliant,” Crews said.

The changes come in the wake of a series of investigative reports on Rainey’s scalding, and other suspicious prison deaths.

Those reports led to police finally interviewing the witnesses whose stories had previously been disregarded — and to the firing of Dade Correctional’s warden and his top deputy.

David Boyer, an attorney for the nonprofit group Disability Rights Florida, which filed a lawsuit last month alleging abuse and torture of inmates with mental illnesses at Dade Correctional, said it’s “too soon” to tell whether these reforms will have any impact.

“I think we would characterize this as the latest fix to the prison mental health system,” Boyer said.

As a psychotherapist at Dade Correctional, George Mallinckrodt became privy to many disturbing events. He says he saw an inmate’s blood splashed on the floor and window of a common room after the man was “body-slammed” by guards. He says another inmate’s back, stomach, and chest were left covered in bruises after guards “kicked the hell out of him,” and that daily he heard a guard agitate inmates “to the point where they would be yelling and screaming.”

Mallinckrodt, who says he filed incident reports about some of the abuses, was fired in 2011, accused of taking long lunches. Several months after he left, he was told by former colleagues that a shower in Dade Correctional’s Transitional Care Unit — where the mentally ill are housed — was being used to torment inmates who angered guards.

In June 2012, Rainey died after nearly two hours locked inside the brutally hot, closet-like shower. Guards were allegedly trying to punish him for defecating on the floor of his cell and refusing to clean it up.

Mallinckrodt, who recently self-published a book about his time at Dade Correctional, said the reforms announced Friday are missing critical elements. Crisis training for correctional officers is a “really good thing” he said, but it’s also important to “ferret out” violent correctional officers.

Mallinckrodt also said he saw many inmates who were so severely mentally ill that the staff wondered how they were found fit for trial in the first place.

One inmate ate his own feces. Another thought he was “the ruler of the universe and needed to go to another planet.” Some were delusional, others catatonic. “They will just stand there and stare at a wall and be unresponsive,” he said.

Judge Steve Leifman, a longtime advocate for the mentally ill who presides in the Miami-Dade courts, said: “It’s easy to finger the Department of Corrections because clearly they have a legal and moral and constitutional responsibility” to care for a difficult-to-manage population.

“Having said that, we have inappropriately criminalized mental health behavior in this state and in this country to the point where we end up seeing these tragic situations,” Leifman said.

Crews agreed that as facilities to treat the mentally ill have closed, a greater burden has fallen on the prison system.

Leifman’s Criminal Mental Health Project analyzed prison data and found that while the overall inmate population in Florida grew 57 percent from 1996 to 2013, the number with mental illnesses expanded by 153 percent.

Most are in prison on minor offenses, Leifman said. Rainey was serving a two-year term for possession of drugs.

“I applaud them for taking these steps, albeit late,” Leifman said. “If they had done a lot of this beforehand we wouldn’t have seen the systematic abuse and murder go on in the prison system involving the population with serious mental illnesses.”

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