The state Department of Corrections has serious problems with the way it treats inmates and needs systemwide reform. Corrections Secretary Mike Crews recently acknowledged the flaws and detailed sensible changes for the department, including expanding crisis training for prison guards and increasing transparency and accountability surrounding inmate deaths. That is a start, but Crews also needs to bring closure to the investigations of suspicious deaths of prisoners in which prison guards have been implicated.
The reforms come following the Miami Herald's report this spring of the deaths of several inmates who died after altercations with prison guards. In one of the most disturbing incidents, Darren Rainey, 50, collapsed and died in 2012 at the Dade Correctional Institution near Homestead after guards locked him in a scalding hot shower for two hours. After his death, inmates removed chunks of his skin from the shower. Rainey, who was mentally ill, was being punished for defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up.
The Herald detailed other appalling cases, including the death of Randall Jordan-Aparo, 27, whom guards at the Franklin Correctional Institution had repeatedly gassed. He had been begging for medical treatment. And 36-year-old Damion Foster died at the Charlotte Correctional Institution after a run-in with officers in the prison's mental health unit. In nearly each case, the Herald found attempts to cover up the incidents or such slow, shoddy investigations that prison guards were rarely held to account. In July, four corrections department investigators filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit, alleging that they had been targeted for exposing guards' criminal activity.
Among the changes Crews announced last month is the creation of a database that will allow the public to access information about every inmate death that is not a result of natural causes. The department also wants to expand crisis intervention training for its officers so they can respond appropriately in situations involving mentally ill inmates. Going forward, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will investigate all inmate deaths that are not due to natural causes. A remarkable 82 investigations are underway.
Crews has taken an important step by introducing reform to an agency that for too long has operated outside the bounds of public accountability. He contends that the majority of department's officers are upstanding and that instances of inmate abuse are the result of a few bad apples. Crews may be right, but he should remain vigilant and open to the possibility that a broader problem exists and bolder action will be needed.
Corrections officers need to know that punishment for inmate abuse will be swift and consistent throughout the state. The only way to stamp out violence against inmates is to hold guards accountable for their criminal or disrespectful acts. Inmates, no matter how despicable their crimes or behavior, do not deserve to be abused by the officers tasked with keeping them safe.