Mental Health Advocates Sue Prison System

Sep 10, 2014

A mental health advocacy group filed a lawsuit Tuesday alleging the Florida Department of Corrections and its contractors ignored the widespread torture and abuse of mentally ill inmates for years at a Miami prison.

Meanwhile, as the Miami Herald reports, the department has unveiled a new inmate mortality database amid the furor over inmate deaths. 

The civil suit filed by Disability Rights Florida seeks immediate reforms and investigations into the most serious complaints it says the agency has ignored for years. The Miami Herald reports the suit alleged that the culture of abuse at Dade Correctional Institution contributed to the deaths of at least two mentally ill inmates within the past two years, including Darren Rainey.

Guards allegedly left Rainey alone in a locked, scalding hot shower with water that measured as high as 180 degrees as punishment before his death in 2012. Fellow inmates said Rainey, 50, was put in the shower after he defecated in his cell and refused to clean it up, the Miami Herald reported.

An attorney for the organization said the shower punishment was not an isolated incident and was a routine known by the warden, inspectors and the treatment staff.

Peter P. Sleasman, a lawyer for the Florida Institutional Legal Services Project, said the lawsuit does not seek monetary damages for Rainey’s death. His client wants an injunction to force the state and its private contractors to institute sweeping, immediate reforms benefiting all mentally ill inmates at Dade Correctional.

The warden was fired after Rainey’s death, but no one has been criminally charged. The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called for a federal investigation. They also want an investigation into the treatment of mentally ill inmates in Florida.

“We take any allegation of inmate abuse or inappropriate behavior by our staff very seriously,” spokeswoman Jessica Cary said in a statement. She declined comment on the lawsuit because the agency has not yet received it.

She noted that staff who work in mental health units across the state are receiving specialty training to ensure they have the tools to properly supervise inmates with mental illnesses. Two new re-entry centers will also offer specialized support for inmates who have mental health needs.

Last week, prison officials announced a new discipline policy to hold employees to uniform standards after Secretary Michael Crews said investigations revealed inconsistent punishments for improper acts.

The corrections department, which has more than 100,000 inmates and supervises nearly 146,000 offenders in the community, has also come under scrutiny for not releasing details after inmate deaths.

In response, the agency launched a website Tuesday to release information on in-custody deaths. The website will also include cases that are still under investigation.