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.