by Jenise Griffin Morgan
Special to the NNPA from The Florida Courier
Darren Rainey was forced into a scalding hot shower at the Dade Correctional Institution on June 23, 2012, and allegedly left there for two hours as part of a punishment ritual. When his body was removed from the locked shower, chunks of his skin had fallen off.
According to a grievance complaint from a fellow inmate, Rainey screamed over and over, “I can’t take it no more, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
A medical document showed that Rainey’s skin was so badly burned from the scalding shower that it had shriveled from his body, a condition called “slippage.”
As of August 2014, Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma had not released an autopsy report or told Rainey’s family how he died. The medical examiner’s office says that it is waiting for the police to finish their investigation into the death.
Human rights groups, including the ACLU and NAACP, have called for a federal investigation into the gruesome death of the 50-year-old Rainey, who had been diagnosed with a mental illness. A series of investigative stories by the Miami Herald daily newspaper highlighted Rainey’s death and how the state mistreats its inmates with mental health issues.
Reports allege that the punishment for prisoners by corrections officers has ranged from the scalding showers to sexual abuse to starvation diets to inmates battling it out while guards placed bets and watched.
‘Fixing the problems’
The Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) is the third-largest state prison system in the country with an operating budget in 2012-13 of approximately $2.1 billion. More than 100,000 inmates are in DOC prisons and another 145,000 offenders are on community supervision.
Last month, DOC Secretary Mike Crews announced system-wide reforms, which will include better training of corrections officers in handling mentally ill inmates.
“Stories report we have fallen short in specific instances with regard to facility leadership, safety, security, training and services for mentally ill inmates. We’re fixing the problems that have been identified and as we identify new issues, we will fix those too. Our Department should be held to the highest standards, and I have zero tolerance for anything less,” said Crews in a statement released on Aug. 20.
“We need to anticipate problems and implement a system-wide approach to correct issues before they become widespread. We must act with a sense of urgency. There is no silver bullet, but everything we do is moving us down a path toward safer facilities and a safer Florida.”
Rainey’s death was brought to the forefront this year when the Miami Herald began asking probing questions about what happened the night he died. No one has been charged in Rainey’s death. He was serving a two-year sentence for possession of cocaine. He allegedly had been placed in the shower for defecating in his cell. The facility’s warden at the time, Jerry Cummings, was fired this July.
According to reports, Miami-Dade police officers did not save the 911 tape the night Rainey died. And official reports by prison staff have made it seem that Rainey died while taking a routine shower, although inmates said he screamed out in agony until he collapsed and died.
Federal probe urged
In June, human rights organizations wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate Rainey’s death. George Mallinckrodt, a psychotherapist who worked in the psychiatric unit of Dade Correctional Institution from 2008 to 2011, also has filed a DOJ complaint. He has stated that guards “taunted, tormented, abused, beat and tortured chronically mentally ill inmates on a regular basis.”
A Miami Herald report states that Mallinckrodt also complained to the warden at the Dade Correctional Institution and the DOC, but didn’t receive a response.
Crews stated that of all the inmates that came into the DOC system in the 2013-14 fiscal year, 21 percent had a mental illness; 69 percent had a substance abuse issue upon arrival. Some had a combination of both.
Training of officers
“To address the challenges faced by our staff, we are expanding our Crisis Intervention Training programs for correctional officers. The Crisis Intervention Training teaches our correctional officers the right and wrong ways to handle this specific population, so they don’t unintentionally escalate an incident or hurt an individual with our use of force techniques,” Crews said in the Aug. 20 statement.
He added that 625 officers assigned to facilities with an inpatient mental health population already have received the training.
“Over the next 90 days, approximately 150 additional officers will be designated for Crisis Intervention Training to ensure all staff who work with inmates who have a mental illness have received this specialized training,” he noted.
New re-entry centers
Crews also announced the creation of re-entry centers to assist inmates with mental health needs.
“We are scheduled to open one center here at Everglades C.I. (Correctional Institute in Miami) and another center at Baker C.I. (Correctional Institution in Sanderson) in the spring of 2015,” he explained.
“Together, these re-entry centers will house 864 inmates that will all receive vocational and substance abuse treatment. Additionally, we are adding mental health treatment and support services for up to 100 of these inmates. These supports will help the inmates so they can successfully transition back into the community and remain crime-free.
“We have already begun coordination with the mental health and substance abuse experts at the Department of Children and Families to propose a pilot program that will help inmates with mental illness make a smoother, more successful transition back into mainstream society with the support of a case manager. The use of a case manager can help the inmates who are leaving our system be more successful in the community.”
On transparency, Crews stated, “As a Department, I want to take better advantage of technology so we can communicate even more effectively with the public, and be more efficient in providing public records and public data. 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. With over 100,000 inmates in our custody, we function much like a city where the vast majority of inmates who pass away do so from natural causes.”
In the wrong place
The Rev. Willie Dixon is executive director of the COACH Foundation, Inc., a non-profit based in Tampa that assists inmates and their families before, during and after incarceration.
Dixon, who has been involved with prison ministry since 1979, told the Florida Courier that too many mentally ill residents are being housed in prisons.
“It appears the prison system is exchanging mental beds for prison beds,” he said.
He referred to the report, “The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails,” released this year by the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating barriers to the timely and effective treatment of severe mental illness. The center reports that approximately 20 percent of inmates in jails and 15 percent of inmates in state prisons have a serious mental illness.
“Based on the total number of inmates, this means that there are approximately 356,000 inmates with serious mental illness in jails and state prisons. This is 10 times more than the approximately 35,000 individuals with serious mental illness remaining in state hospitals,” according to the report.
Not getting better
“The Department of Corrections and the Florida Legislature should do a better job of registering who is going to prison, as well as their mental conditions at the time of their incarceration and release from prison. Without proper help, employment, housing and community involvement, many inmates become homeless and return to prison within 90 days to three years of their release from prison,’’ Dixon remarked.
“It has been recorded that many people in the system come out worse mentally than they were when they go in, when they failed to participate in positive programs and maintain a positive altitude,’’ added Dixon, who ministers in various state institutions, including the Zephyrhills Correctional Institution where he teaches a weekly Bible study class.
“I would like to see more community programs for former inmates as well as for people exhibiting behavioral problems,” he added.
“I am glad to know that there will be more training of correctional officers, and the state certainly needs to do more to make sure all felons with mental health and substance abuse issues have better access to programs while in prison and when they are released so that they can make a smooth transition into society as productive and tax-paying citizens.”