Florida prison deaths spark call for federal probe

Posted | by Ian Pajer-Rogers |

A coalition of 14 human rights groups on Thursday called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Florida state prisons, contending that "immediate intervention" is necessary to stop the widespread abuse, neglect, torture and deaths of inmates in the Florida Department of Corrections.

In a letter to Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the group cited a list of suspected criminal and civil rights violations against prisoners, including: torture and death by starvation, excessive use of force, medical neglect, misuse of solitary confinement, suicide, sexual assault and death and torture by scalding.

As examples, the letter cites 17 inmates who allegedly died under one or more of those conditions, as well as three others who continue to suffer as a result of violence and neglect suffered in the state prison system.

"Given the Florida Department of Corrections' pattern and practice of consistently failing to remedy these pervasive and egregious problems, only the Department of Justice can properly address these violations," the coalition wrote.

The group, headed by Florida's ACLU, expressed particular concern about the abuse and deaths of inmates who suffer from mental illnesses, citing several who have died in recent years under suspicious circumstances. One of those inmates, Darren Rainey, died in 2012 after he was left for more than two hours in a shower with temperatures in excess of 180 degrees.

Rainey's death is already the subject of a federal civil rights inquiry, as well as a state criminal investigation. Rainey, who suffered from schizophrenia, was allegedly forced into the shower by corrections officers at Dade Correctional Institution near Homestead and left there, as punishment, for bad behavior.

The Miami-Dade medical examiner has yet to release his cause of death, and the criminal investigation into his death is still pending.

Several other deaths at Dade Correctional Institution were cited, including Richard Mair, another inmate who suffered from mental illness who hanged himself at the prison in 2014. He had previously complained that he and other mentally ill inmates were being sexually violated, beaten and mentally abused at the prison. After his death, a suicide note was found sewn into his boxers that listed a number of abuses, and it contained the names of officers whom he claimed were regularly beating inmates or forcing them to fight each other for sport.

His death and the allegations he made has never been investigated by police or by the corrections department.

Other examples included Ricky Martin, a 24-year-old convicted burglar, who was killed at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution. He was beaten, stabbed and stomped on by a fellow inmate despite numerous pleas by him and other inmates to stop the killer, who had vowed earlier in the day to kill Martin because he was white. Corrections officers were warned, but ignored the pleas, according to more than a dozen inmates interviewed by the agency after the death. No corrections officers were disciplined.

Nearly all the cases cited in the letter were part of an ongoing series about corruption and violence in Florida prisons by the Miami Herald. For more than a year, the newspaper has reviewed thousands of documents, conducted hundreds of interviews and visited prisons where prisoners have alleged they've seen or they themselves have been mentally, physically and sexually abused. In most cases, few, if any, corrections officers or wardens were held accountable. And the circumstances surrounding the deaths were often covered up, according to witnesses.

In recent months, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) has made several reforms to try to improve prison conditions. More than a dozen corrections officers have been fired and arrested, wardens have been forced out and regional directors have been ordered to reapply for their jobs. Gov. Rick Scott and new prisons Secretary Julie Jones have ordered an overhaul of the agency, and some changes have already been implemented.

McKinley Lewis, FDC's communications director, said the agency is committed to ensuring the safety of Florida's 100,000 inmates.

"Many of the issues raised by the ACLU are the subject of past or present criminal and administrative investigations which involve multiple local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. FDC is confident that our ongoing reforms, and current leadership, will continue to move our agency in a positive direction that focuses on our vision of inspiring success by transforming one life at a time," Lewis said in a statement.

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said those reforms are not enough to change the culture of the Florida's prison system, which is the third largest in the nation. Cover-ups are so ingrained in the prisons that far too many corrections officers are still able to harm inmates without impunity, he said.

"An appalling 346 people died in Florida prisons last year.it is the responsibility of the Governor's office to ensure the safety of the state's prisons. But under the leadership of Gov. Scott, conditions have deteriorated," Simon said in a statement.

He also pointed out that the agency has failed to investigate potential wrongdoing, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is handling some of the death cases, is taking far too long to give closure - and justice - to families of inmates who have died.

"Many of the FDC and FDLE investigations into instances of death and/or abuse of prisoners are languishing. The investigations have been ongoing for more than three years without any conclusion in sight," he said.

Gupta is in charge of the Justice Department's civil rights division and is the nation's top civil rights prosecutor.

The coalition's letter was also signed by Robin Cole, president, National Alliance on Mental Illness; Steve Wetstein, Stop Prison Abuse Now; Randall Berg Jr., executive director, Florida Justice Institute; Christopher Jones, director, Florida Legal Services Inc.; Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer, executive director, Florida Council of Churches; Adora Obi Nweze, president, Florida Conference of NAACP Branches; Jeanette Smith, executive director, South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice...

View the full story from the Orlando Sentinel