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No Charges for Florida Prison Guards Involved in Shower Death of Mentally Ill Inmate

The corrections officers who locked a schizophrenic inmate into a rigged shower -- one that at least five inmates said was cranked up to scalding temperatures -- committed no crime, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle announced Friday.

By Julie K. Brown

The corrections officers who locked a schizophrenic inmate into a rigged shower -- one that at least five inmates said was cranked up to scalding temperatures -- committed no crime, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle announced Friday.

The state attorney's two-year investigation into the June 23, 2012, death of Darren Rainey at Dade Correctional Institution concluded that the officers -- Sgt. John Fan Fan, Cornelius Thompson, Ronald Clarke and Edwina Williams -- did not act with premeditation, malice, recklessness, ill-will, hatred or evil intent when they locked Rainey into the shower.

They also said that there was no evidence that the shower was scalding, even though it appears clear that the police detectives who arrived at the scene immediately after the incident didn't take the water temperature.

"The shower was itself neither dangerous nor unsafe,'' the report concluded. "The evidence does not show that Rainey's well-being was grossly disregarded by the correctional staff.''

The report says there is no evidence that the water in the shower was inordinately hot.

Fernández Rundle's conclusion contrasts sharply with the assertions of his family and others, including some former prison staffers who talked to the Herald. They believe the shower, whose temperature was controlled from the outside, was used to expose inmates to searing temperatures. A nurse in the prison infirmary told the Miami Herald that the temperature of Rainey's body that night was so high it could not be registered on a thermometer.

The circumstances of his death -- and subsequent assertions by several staff members and inmates at the prison that Rainey and other disabled prisoners had been routinely abused by officers-- thrust Dade Correctional into the spotlight and led to a grassroots movement by civil rights groups and advocates for those with mental illnesses, demanding reforms to the Florida prison system.

Multiple inmates told the Herald that the placement of the temperature controls on the outside of the shower unit was deliberately so officers could crank the water to scalding temperatures, or make it frigidly cold, to punish inmates in the transitional care unit, which housed inmates with mental illnesses.

The state prison guards also used other forms of torture, inmates said, including dousing prisoners with buckets of chemicals, over-medicating them, forcing them to fight each other and starving them. A group of officers at the prison that served inmates empty food trays, known as "air trays." was known as the "diet squad'' and they often preyed on inmates who were too ill to coherently report what had happened, prisoners said.

Around the time of Rainey's death, another inmate hanged himself from an air conditioning vent, leaving a note sewed into his shorts detailing a litany of alleged abuses against inmates in the mental health unit.

"I'm in a mental health facility...I'm supposed to be getting help for my depression, suicidal tendencies and I was sexually assaulted,'' wrote Richard Mair, 40.

The Department of Corrections never investigated his complaints, and the state attorney's investigation in the Rainey case was limited to the facts surrounding his death.

Rainey, 50, was serving a two-year sentence for cocaine possession and had been at Dade for about four months at the time of his death. He reportedly had soiled himself in his cell and refused to clean up, so the officers led him to the second-floor shower, despite other showers being closer to his cell.

Corrections officers claimed they checked on Rainey every half hour and that he was fine. But some inmates said Rainey screamed and begged to be let out, promising them he would behave. They told the Herald that the officers ignored his pleas, and taunted him and laughed, saying "is it hot enough?''

After prison staff found his body in a heap on the floor of the shower, Miami-Dade police were called to the prison to investigate. They classified the incident as an "unexplained in-custody death,'' and set the case aside. It wasn't until the Herald began writing about the incident in May 2014 that detectives began looking into it in earnest.

Until Friday, Miami-Dade's medical examiner would not release the autopsy or the cause of death -- not even to Rainey's family. Andre Chapman, Rainey's brother, said prison officials had pressured him into cremating Darren, and, because the family had no money, he agreed.

Following the Herald's stories, Dade Correctional's warden and assistant warden were forced out, and, later, the secretary for the department stepped down amid political pressure. Other high-level prison officials also left, including the prison agency's inspector general, Jeffery Beasley -- the system's "watchdog'' -- who was accused by his own investigators of thwarting investigations.

The two guards identified in reports as locking Rainey in the shower left their prison jobs, but were allowed to keep their law enforcement certifications. One is now a police officer in Miami Gardens and the other works as a federal corrections officer.

Rainey's family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections in 2016.

The U.S. Department of Justice is still investigating possible civil rights abuses in Florida prisons.

(c)2017 Miami Herald

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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