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Prison-Death Investigation Pressure Grows

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

CLARIFICATION: In a story Jan. 5, The Associated Press reported that Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials said investigations of inmate deaths has increased 29 percent in the past five years. The story should have specified that the increase applied to investigations of all deaths that occurred while in law enforcement custody or from the use of force. It was not limited to investigations in state prisons.

State law enforcement officials asked legislators for additional funds Monday to keep up with the growing demand for death investigations at Florida's troubled prisons.

The Department of Corrections, or DOC, has been marred by allegations of inmate abuse and cover-ups at Florida prisons in the past year, prompting dozens of firings and an agencywide overhaul. The scrutiny prompted the secretary earlier this year to put the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in charge of all investigations into deaths that occurred under unnatural circumstances.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says investigations of inmate deaths that occurred while in the custody of prison employees or as the result of such employees' use of force have increased 29 percent in the past five years. Authorities asked members of a Senate committee for $8.4 million to help with the 82 cases it inherited from the Department of Corrections, plus the 104 cases the Department of Law Enforcement opened on its own.

During the Tallahassee meeting, lawmakers also said the two departments must clarify whether all deaths are being investigated or only suspicious deaths. Lawmakers expressed concerns about whether Department of Corrections staff could be trusted to accurately report suspicious deaths amid allegations of cover-ups.

Under the agreement, the department is supposed to notify the Law Enforcement Department so that investigators can respond to the facility while the scene is still intact.

But lawmakers noted parts of the agreement needed to be defined, including what the consequences are if prison officials don't report the death and whether the Department of Law Enforcement, known by its acronym FDLE, should investigate all deaths, including those caused by lack of care.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, said the two agencies now have a verbal agreement where FDLE will only investigate suspicious deaths.

"Isn't one of the concerns whether DOC is properly describing the incidents as suspicious or non-suspicious?" he asked.

This fall, DOC officials fired nearly 50 prison employees, including several over allegations that they punched and beat inmates.

The deaths of inmates Randall Jordan-Aparo and Darren Rainey also drew attention. Rainey, a mentally ill prisoner, was punished in 2012 with a shower so hot that his skin separated from his body. Jordan-Aparo was reportedly gassed while in a confinement cell.

Witnesses say guards at Dade Correctional Institution left Rainey alone for two hours in a locked, scalding hot shower as punishment for defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up. The warden at Dade Correctional was fired.

Between 15 percent and 20 percent of Florida's 100,000 prisoners have been diagnosed with a mental health condition that requires treatment.

"Inmates were regularly taunted, tormented, beaten, and in some cases killed by correctional officers," testified George C. Mallinckrodt, a former therapist at Dade Correctional.

He suggested guards wear body cameras and that the agency establish a toll-free confidential hotline on inmate's payphones to report abuse.