Three years after Dade Correctional Institution was thrust into the national spotlight for the death of an inmate locked in a boiling shower in its mental health unit, deaths at the prison have soared to unprecedented heights.
In 2016, 13 inmates died at Dade Correctional, including four from hanging. That’s twice as many deaths as any other state prison, with the exception of Charlotte Correctional (7) and prison hospitals and compounds catering to the sick or elderly.
Three of those who apparently killed themselves were 30 or younger, two of them men with mental illnesses. Another inmate was killed by his cellmate and seven died of various medical ailments, ranging from heart disease to lymphoma.
They are among 366 prisoners who died in Florida state prisons in 2016 — the highest number in the history of the Florida Department of Corrections. Most of those deaths remain under investigation.
Florida’s prison system, with nearly 99,000 inmates, is the third-largest in the country. Last year, it was far deadlier than Texas, another notoriously tough system, which had 146,684 inmates and 407 deaths. That translates to 47 percent more inmates than Florida but just 11 percent more deaths.
Julie Jones, secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections, attributed Florida’s rising death toll to the aging prison population, and to the spread of gangs, which has led to an increase in inmate-on-inmate killings.
“We have a lot of violence right now and it has to do with the level of supervision and the gang population. What is scary, too, is the volume of inmate-on-inmate assaults, which increased 70 percent in the last six years,’’ Jones said.
Florida’s prisons have long been considered among the most brutal in the nation. The elimination of parole dramatically increased the inmate population, especially swelling the ranks of older prisoners. The abuse of inmates, particularly those who suffer from mental illnesses, has been a part of the prison system’s culture for decades.
Jones, who took over the prison system two years ago amid the scandal over the shower death at Dade Correctional, said in an in-depth interview last year about prison deaths that the agency is doing the best it can with the resources it has. She is seeking additional funding this year to help recruit and retain more corrections officers.
“With very rare exception,” she said, the deaths are not caused by a lack of due diligence or neglect, she said.
Dade Correctional, which is not unusually large for a Florida prison, is under particular scrutiny by state and federal investigators after a 2014 Miami Herald investigation revealed that officers had been forcing inmates in its mental health units into a specially rigged, scalding hot shower as punishment for unruly behavior.
Fifty-year-old Darren Rainey, a schizophrenic inmate serving time on a drug charge, died in 2012 after the officers locked him in a shower designed to deliver water at 180 degrees. The Herald found witnesses who said other inmates in the mental health unit were starved, beaten or harassed by officers so severely that they committed suicide.
Four and a half years after Rainey’s death, the circumstances are still being reviewed by the Miami-Dade state attorney. A prison advocacy group, Stop Prison Abuse Now (SPAN), wrote a letter to State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle recently asking why the case remains open. Last year, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner concluded that Rainey died from complications of schizophrenia, heart disease and “confinement” in the shower. His manner of death was listed as “accidental.’’
After the Herald’s 2014 report — and an outcry from human rights groups — there was a shake-up at the prison. The warden and other commanders retired or resigned
Disability Rights Florida filed a federal lawsuit against FDC, alleging systematic abuse and discrimination, including brutality, deprivation of food, and physical and verbal harassment by Dade’s correctional officers against inmates with serious mental illness. The suit also claimed that mental health treatment staff employed by private contractor Wexford Health failed to report the abuses, and that FDC knew about the atrocities but failed to intervene.
Peter Sleasman, the attorney for Disability Rights Florida, said the agency has made some progress in improving conditions in Dade CI’s inpatient unit, known as the TCU, or transitional care unit. But the group, which advocates for people with disabilities, has serious concerns about outpatient care involving inmates who have mental disabilities.
Those inmates often have behavior issues that result in disciplinary action, and many wind up in some form of confinement — a more restrictive form of incarceration — where they don’t receive adequate care or supervision, he said.
“The progress has been very slow, slower than we have liked,’’ Sleasman said. “We have seen some improvement in at the inpatient level at Dade but we have a lot of concerns over the level of care at the outpatient level.’’
The problem is especially acute at Dade, where many officers have minimal experience and there is a critical staff shortage. The prison, located near Homestead, has been short-handed because officers can’t earn enough to keep up with the cost of living in South Florida, which is higher than in many other parts of the state. The average officer’s base pay is about $31,000 a year and employees have not had base-pay raises in a decade.
Dade CI’s deaths included a 26-year-old who had been at the prison for just three months when he hanged himself. Andrew Difrancesco, who was sentenced to five years for possession of child pornography, called his aunt on May 8 to wish her a happy Mother’s Day.
Carol Difrancesco, the aunt who raised him, said he whispered on the phone and told her not to try to call him back. It was the last time she spoke to him. Ten days later, he put a handwritten “Do Not Enter” sign on a stairwell door in the prison’s TCU unit and hanged himself.
“He was in a car accident when he was 19 and became addicted to opiates,’’ the aunt said. “He had been in recovery and seemed happy. Then we found out he was in jail and we were just shocked because we knew nothing that this was part of his life.’’
Another inmate, Anthony Vidal, 45, was killed by his cellmate in a confinement unit at the prison in March, authorities said. The audio monitors in the unit were turned off, so the guards could not hear Vidal’s cries for help or the screams from other inmates trying to summon them, said Julio Monroy, a former captain at the prison who was on duty at the time of the incident.
“He was crying for help and because no speakers were on, no one knew he needed help,’’ Monroy said. Monroy was fired in August because, he said, he was “butting heads’’ with the colonel over the treatment and abuse of inmates.
“The TCU is a hellhole. They don’t give a crap about the inmates in there,’’ he said. “The mental health treatment is a joke. I don’t understand how I can send an inmate who wants to kill himself there and five minutes later he is back in my office.’’