1. Opinion

Editorial: A horrific account of prison abuse

Were it not for the determination of a Florida inmate from Pinellas County, officials may never have investigated another inmate's death by scalding water or addressed the horrific treatment of the incarcerated in the state's prisons. The whistle-blowing inmate was initially ignored by officials and only gained traction after he contacted the Miami Herald, which published a remarkable series of articles about inmate abuse. It shouldn't have taken a raft of embarrassing headlines for the Department of Corrections to pay attention to the rampant dysfunction in Florida's state prisons, investigate suspicious deaths and hold violators accountable.

Convicted burglar Harold Hempstead is responsible for helping to lift the curtains on systemic corruption in Florida's prison system. The Herald reported Sunday that Hempstead witnessed or was aware of inmate abuse by guards at several state prisons. He said he saw guards starving prisoners, beating them and ignoring their pleas for medical care. But it was the 2012 death of Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old mentally ill man, that compelled Hempstead to speak out.

Rainey, a prisoner at Dade Correctional Institution, had defecated in his cell and refused to clean it up. Prison guards set about punishing him by giving him the "shower treatment." The guards allegedly placed Rainey in a scalding hot shower with temperatures that reached 180 degrees and left him for nearly two hours, the Herald reported. When the guards returned, Rainey was dead and chunks of his skin lined the shower stall. Inmates were told to clean the shower and keep quiet. Nothing excuses such horrific treatment, even in prison.

Hempstead, who is serving a 165-year-sentence, told doctors and nurses that provided care at the prison. Nothing happened until he reached out to the Herald last year. The newspaper began digging through public records and uncovered a pattern of inmate abuse, corrupt guards, suspicious inmate deaths and poor treatment of the mentally ill.

The Department of Corrections responded by pledging an overhaul. Nearly three dozen guards have been fired for inmate abuse and there is a zero-tolerance policy for staff violation of criminal statutes. The department has instituted training for dealing with the mentally ill and enlisted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate 82 inmate deaths. At Dade Correctional, cameras have been installed in the mental health unit and the U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into Rainey's death. These are all good steps, and the DOC should continue to improve its policies and procedures.

It is easy to scoff at the notion of fair treatment for prisoners serving time for their crimes. But it is the state's duty to ensure inmates' safety and to hold those accountable who compromise it. Forced into the light by Hempstead, the Department of Corrections appears to be more diligent about changing a culture that is out of sight and largely escapes public scrutiny. But there is more to be done. The Legislature failed to approve major prison reforms this year that would have provided broader oversight of the department, and lawmakers should take up the issue again next year.