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Two Years After Florida Inmate's Death, Groups Call For Federal Investigation

prison cells
Thomas Hawke via Flickr

Human rights and faith-based groups are asking the federal government to investigate how Florida treats mentally ill prisoners. The groups say no one is being held accountable for a man’s gruesome death two years ago.

Most people who’ve heard what happened to Darren Rainey in prison likely know the story because of a Miami Herald investigation that’s been unfolding since May. Reporter Julie Brown talked with other inmates and a prison nurse who were at Dade Correctional Institution in June of 2012.  Rainey, a 50-year-old mentally ill man, was serving a two-year sentence for cocaine possession. Other prisoners told Brown, he had gone to the bathroom in his cell, and as a punishment, he was placed in a shower with no internal temperature control.

Florida Justice Institute Executive Director Randall Berg says the water that killed Rainey was hot enough to burn off large pieces of his skin.

“It’s common in institutions like correctional facilities or hospitals or whatever to have hot-water heaters that go much higher than you would have in a home,” he says.

He says the water had been as hot as 180 degrees, according to the nurse’s evaluation. The Justice Institute litigates on behalf of incarcerated people, and Berg says it’s not directly involved in Rainey’s case—but he believes what happened is indicative of a wider problem.

“Mentally ill people will tend to act out the manifestations of their mental illness, and instead of providing them with a reasonable accommodation, which is provided by the law, they instead tend to punish them,” he says.

The Florida Justice Institute has joined the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups calling for the federal Justice Department to investigate Rainey’s death and what Berg believes is a pattern of mistreatment.

ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon says the federal government must get involved when states violate people’s constitutional rights. He acknowledges Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews has called for an internal review of how it cares for mentally ill prisoners.

But Simon says, “Everything that the state has done in terms of looking at the treatment of the mentally ill in Florida prisons is all prospective.” He adds, after two years, Florida has not held anyone accountable for Rainey’s death.

Through a spokeswoman, the Florida Department of Corrections declined an interview but issued a statement saying its internal inspector general and Miami-Dade Police Department are still investigating the incident—and it would take immediate action based on the findings.

But Simon says it’s troubling that it appears people who knew what happened swept it under the rug until recent media attention. And it’s been reported the officers involved in Rainey’s death have received no discipline.

“That is not the way in which this state should be governed,” he says. “We have a situation in which, or it is now reported, that prison guards have killed people and they have apparently bragged about the fact that they can kill people and get away with it.”

The Florida Justice Institute’s Berg says mentally ill inmates have the right to therapy and medication—and they should never be punished for their illness. He says because the state’s prison medical services have been privatized, it’s harder to ensure proper training to accommodate mental illness.  But he hopes the Justice Department’s intervention would spur on changes.