Florida pledges to protect inmates with mental illness

Inmates with mental illnesses who were once confined around the clock to a cell block filled with feces, rotten food and insects — and sometimes allegedly beaten, tortured and starved by staff — should be treated more humanely under a landmark lawsuit settlement reached this week between the Florida Department of Corrections and a statewide disability advocacy group.

The agreement could have far-reaching impact. It requires the state to overhaul the way it treats inmates with mental disorders at Dade Correctional Institution, which has the largest mental health facility in the state prison system.

Disability Rights of Florida brought the action following a series of stories last year in the Miami Herald about guards at Dade Correctional who allegedly used scalding showers and other sadistic forms of discipline to punish and humiliate inmates in the prison’s psychiatric ward, or Transitional Care Unit.

The disability rights group found that the blistering-hot showers, coupled with other physical and mental abuse and a lack of adequate healthcare, were the norm at the institution in June 2012, when 50-year-old inmate Darren Rainey collapsed and died in a shower that had been cranked up to 180 degrees.

Witnesses said that Rainey, who was serving time on a drug charge, was forced into the specially rigged stall by corrections officers, who taunted him as he screamed in panic for nearly two hours until he died.

Other inmates complained that guards forced them to perform sex acts, had them fight each other for the staff’s entertainment, terrorized them with threats and beatdowns and put laxatives and urine in their food. One inmate, Richard Mair, hanged himself after leaving a note detailing alleged atrocities at the hands of officers. Although the prison disciplined some guards for failing to conduct timely security checks the day of the hanging, the agency’s inspector general did little to inquire into Mair’s claims, citing the fact that he was dead and could no longer be questioned.

The advocacy group discovered evidence that officers often targeted those inmates in the unit who suffered from the most severe mental illnesses, and that the medical staff at the prison often failed to report the abuse.

“Mr. Rainey was not the only victim of the shower treatment. What we learned is that, to some extent, those same abuses were affecting others in the unit,’’ said Peter Sleasman, of the Florida Institutional Legal Services Project, which brought the lawsuit for Disability Rights Florida.

Guards who worked in the TCU have been replaced by officers specially trained to handle inmates with mental illnesses, he said. In addition, under the negotiated agreement, experts have been brought in to monitor and evaluate the unit over the next several months. The DOC also has its own experts evaluating the facility and the two parties will come together by year’s end to draw up additional reforms.

Sleasman said that his organization is evaluating other mental health treatment units in prisons around the state, and hopes the reforms implemented at Dade Correctional will be employed at the other facilities.

The agreement is unusual, Sleasman said, because the Department of Corrections cooperated with the advocates to come up with a plan in a timely manner.

The DOC has voluntarily instituted its own reforms, including the addition of an ombudsman to oversee the agency’s mental health programs. At Dade Correctional, additional security cameras have been installed with audio, the facility’s crumbling plumbing and air conditioning systems have been repaired and patients are now allowed to leave their cells for programs and treatment. Medical staffers are required to report any instances of abuse.

DOC spokesman McKinley Lewis said the agency is committed to ensuring proper care, treatment and security for prisoners who suffer from mental illness. Many reforms are already underway at the department’s nine other TCU units around the state, he said.

“Through enhanced training opportunities for staff and the continued development of comprehensive solutions to issues posed by a growing population of mentally ill inmates, the department will continue to expand and enhance our mental health capabilities,” Lewis said.

The agreement is a “work in progress,’’ Sleasman said, noting that there are still a number of issues outside of the agreement that remain unresolved.

Some abuse cases such as Rainey’s remain open three years after they happen, and the agency and law enforcement are taking too long to find out what led to the deaths and injuries involving other inmates in the prison system with mental illnesses, Sleasman said.

Among them is prisoner Rudolf Rowe, who suffered severe brain injuries during an unexplained incident at Union Correctional Institution in 2012 that resulted in guards being dismissed. A second inmate, Frank Smith, died at the same prison around the same time in another still-unexplained incident. Three years later, the cases are still pending.

“I don’t know exactly what the inspector general is doing. How long does it take to investigate these cases?’’ Sleasman said.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently began a criminal inquiry into Rainey’s death, as well as other alleged violations of the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment at Dade Correctional.