We must do more to make our correctional facilities safer

The death of Darren Rainey has heightened our awareness that we must do more to make our facilities safer. That’s why last week we announced system-wide reforms that focus on the mental-health needs of the inmates in our facilities, operating in a more transparent manner, increasing accountability and partnering with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to streamline investigations.

First, the department will work to address the unique challenges presented by inmates who suffer from mental illness.

Of the inmates that came into the DOC system in the 2013-14 fiscal year, 21 percent had a mental illness and 69 percent had a substance-abuse issue upon arrival; often, inmates presented with both conditions. To address the challenges faced by our staff, we are expanding our Crisis Intervention Training programs that teach our correctional officers the right and wrong ways to handle this specific population.

We also identified strategies for providing better treatment and services for inmates who have a mental illness. One strategy is to use two of our new re-entry centers to create centers of specialized support for inmates who have mental health needs.

Everglades Correctional Institution and Baker Correctional Institution are scheduled to have centers opening in the spring of 2015 that will provide mental-health treatment and support to inmates who are scheduled for release in the next three years.

We are also committed to being more transparent. Through the use of technology, we have the opportunity to provide the public with greater access into the functions of the department — especially in cases when an inmate dies in one of our facilities. In the next 30 days, we will make releasable information on in-custody deaths available to the public on a website.

The website will also include all cases that are still under investigation and will be regularly updated. This web-based resource will provide policy experts, legislators and the public with important data that can be used to create a better Department.

I have worked with FDLE Commissioner Gerry Bailey to give the Florida Department of Law Enforcement full investigative authority on all deaths at all of our facilities that are the result of any non-natural causes.

In total, FDLE will become the lead on 82 active cases. Giving FDLE full investigative authority will provide a high level of independence on major investigations and ensures investigations will be handled in a timely manner. The death of inmate Rainey brought to light the serious significance of the investigative process and the importance of strengthening FDLE’s role to help us act quickly on the facts.

These reforms will make our facilities and communities safer, and with Florida experiencing the success of a 43-year crime low, this department is committed to ensuring the safety of Florida families, while improving the outcomes for the inmates in our custody so they can leave prison and re-enter society with the best chance to be successful, law-abiding residents of our state.

Michael Crews is secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections.