Florida prison officials to overhaul system

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State correction officials vowed Wednesday to make prisons safer by improving transparency and beefing up investigations following criticism for the handling of inmate deaths.

“Stories report we have fallen short in specific instances with regard to facility leadership, safety, security, training and services for mentally ill inmates. We’re fixing the problems that have been identified and as we identify new issues, we will fix those too,” Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews said during a press conference at a Miami prison.

The agency came under scrutiny after the death of mentally ill inmate Darren Rainey, who was placed alone in a locked, closet-like shower in 2012 for more than two hours with water that measured as high as 180 degrees. 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.

Crews fired the warden, saying it took too long for leaders at Dade Correctional Institution to investigate. No one has been criminally charged in Rainey’s death.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called for a federal investigation into Rainey’s death. They also want an investigation into the treatment of mentally ill inmates in Florida.

Crews said he was giving the Florida Department of Law Enforcement full investigative authority on all non-natural deaths at prisons. The agency will now take the lead on 82 active cases.

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. Crews said the agency will create a website in the next 30 days to publicly release information on in-custody deaths. The website will also include cases that are still under investigation.

Corrections officials are also working to increase accountability among staff after a review of cases files revealed inconsistent punishments for improper acts. The agency is developing a clear and consistent policy to better hold staff accountable. Crews said a criminal conviction is not necessary for disciplinary action to be taken.

“It became clear to me that we have not been applying a uniform standard by which to hold ourselves accountable,” Crews said.

Officials said they’re also changing the system for mentally ill inmates and adding support services for them.

In the next three months, 150 officers who work with inmates with mental illness will receive crisis intervention training so they don’t unintentionally escalate an incident or hurt an individual by using excessing force.

Two new re-entry centers, Everglades and Baker Correctional Institutions, will provide specialized support for inmates who have mental health needs. The centers will house 864 inmates who will receive vocational and substance abuse treatment when it opens in 2015. Additional support services will be provided for up to 100 inmates so they can successfully transition back into the community.