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Mental Health Advocates Suing DOC: 'Prison System Must Go Beyond Current Reforms'

MGN Online

The unnatural death of a mentally ill inmate two years ago has spurred the Florida Department of Corrections to enact a series of reforms. But, some mental health advocates say it’s not enough. Now, the group Disability Rights Florida is suing the prison agency on behalf of other mentally ill inmates housed within the same correctional facility the inmate died in.

In 2012, mentally ill inmate, Darren Rainey died, after he was allegedly locked in a scalding, hot shower as punishment at Dade Correctional Institution. And, lawyer representing Disability Rights Florida Peter Sleasman says after conducting their own probe, the group found similar abuses at the facility’s inpatient mental health unit.

“And, we got reports that the most seriously ill inmates were being targeted by the Correctional officers for abuse down there: withholding of food, beatings, other kinds of verbal and physical harassment of the inmates down there—basically for behaviors which were a direct result of their mental illness,” said Sleasman with Florida Institutional Legal Services, which also filed the federal suit.

Corrections Secretary Mike Crews has been traveling the state, visiting different correctional facilities. And, he recently announced a series of reforms, like extra training for officers, new disciplinary and investigative policies, and the launch an inmate deaths website—the agency's latest reform.

“Our department should be held to the highest standard. And, I have zero tolerance for anything less,” said Crews, at a press conference last month.

According to the website, there have been 225 inmate deaths this year—many of them deemed natural, while others are still under investigation. The website allows users to search by facility and view investigations into unnatural deaths.

But, Sleasman says Crews needs to go far beyond that.

“Setting up websites, and doing some additional training, and setting up special re-entry programs for inmates with mental illness—while all very helpful—don't address the core issue of what's going on at Dade CI,” said Sleasman. “The treatment staff employed by the private providers—it was Corizon for awhile, and now it’s Wexford—they were well aware of the abuse going on, and that other higher up supervisory correctional officers were aware of the abuse was going on, and none of them took steps to report or stop it, and those are some of the things that we’re looking to have addressed.”

Sleasman says that’s why Wexford, the private prison health care provider, is also included in the suit. Dade Correctional’s Warden and deputy warden have since been fired and the officers allegedly involved in the Darren Rainey incident no longer work at the prison. A series of Miami Herald reports into Rainey’s death spurred the agency to act.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.