Prison wrong place for Darren Rainey, others with mental illness

Darren Rainey died in a scalding-hot shower in 2014 while at Dade Correctional Institution in Florida City.
Darren Rainey died in a scalding-hot shower in 2014 while at Dade Correctional Institution in Florida City. AP

It is only because of dogged investigative reporting by the Miami Herald that people know of the horrific 2012 death of Florida prison inmate Darren Rainey.

Rainey, incarcerated at the Dade Correctional Institution (DCI), was locked by guards in a shower stall for two hours under a torrent of scalding water — reportedly up to 160 degrees.

Other inmates reported guards frequently used this brutal, and in this case fatal, tactic as a disciplinary measure.

These horrifying circumstances and notorious failures of justice have been well-documented. Rainey’s injuries were so severe that areas of his skin fell off his body. After finding him unresponsive, the staff at DCI waited 20 minutes to call a doctor. It took more than three years to release the autopsy report, which declared the death to be of “natural causes,” despite the EMS technician’s report that there were burns over 30 percent of the body. The police initially classified the death as “unexplained,” and the two guards who locked Rainey in the shower stall still work in law enforcement and corrections.

Only after two years and pressure from Herald reporter Julie Brown did State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle begin investigating. On March 17, Rundle announced that there was not sufficient evidence to charge anyone with a crime.

One can appreciate the evidentiary difficulty of charging officers with the intent to kill Rainey — but it is hard to accept that there was not sufficient evidence for any other charge. Other charges would allow a jury to decide the culpability of the guards who locked him in a shower so that, intended or not, Rainey was boiled to death.

The state attorney said her decision was based on the judgment of the county medical examiner that Rainey’s death was an accident. If there ever was a case that demanded a second opinion of a medical analysis, this is it!

More information on this case will drip out; that’s inevitable. And more questions will be raised about the perplexing decision by the state attorney that no one can be held criminally responsible for the horrible death of a mentally ill, drug addicted man who was locked in a scalding shower.

But this conversation has been too narrow: The policy makers who sustain our criminal-justice system are also culpable.

Rainey was completing a two-year sentence for possession of a small amount of cocaine and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. What was a mentally ill man with a drug addiction, convicted of a nonviolent crime, doing in prison in the first place?

Should someone with no history of violence, diagnosed with a condition that can make it difficult to distinguish between the real and the imaginary, be sent to prison? Rainey had defecated in his cell and wiped himself with the excrement. Were those actions of a sane man?

While the gruesome facts of Rainey's case make it unusual, what is all too common is locking up people with mental disorders in jails and prisons. Contemplate this correlation: Florida ranks 49th in mental-health funding per capita; and 18 percent of Florida prison inmates are diagnosed mental-health disorders. Lawmakers have turned our prisons into de facto mental hospitals.

Prisons should be used to confine dangerous criminals. Correctional officers are not trained to cope with those needing treatment for a severe mental illnesses or a drug addiction — and Florida voters should insist that prisons not be used as a substitute for either.

Those practices cost Florida taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary expense each year.

From 2001 to 2010, Darren Rainey was arrested for possession of cocaine nine times. He wasn't a drug dealer. He wasn't a violent criminal. He was a drug addict.

If Florida treated drug addiction like the medical condition it is, and focused resources on treatment instead of punishment, thousands could embark on the path of recovery and have a chance to become productive members of their communities. Incarceration doesn’t solve addiction. It certainly didn’t help Darren Rainey.

The time is long overdue to address the injustices and irrationalities of our criminal justice system, including reform of drug laws that result in the disproportionate incarceration of people of color.

If Florida didn’t treat mental health like a criminal justice problem, Darren Rainey’s life would never have been at the mercy of the criminal justice and corrections system that killed him. It’s too late to save him — but if we act, we may be able to save others.

Howard L. Simon is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.