The U.S. Justice Department announced it might look in to deaths and rights violations in Florida's prison system. (Via Creative Commons)

The U.S. Justice Department announced it might look in to deaths and rights violations in Florida’s prison system. (Via Creative Commons)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

After a year of controversies, officials at the U.S. Department of Justice are considering launching investigations into the deaths of Florida inmates and whether the state is violating the constitutional rights of prisoners.

The Miami Herald reported this week:

With 320 inmate deaths tallied as of Dec. 8, Florida’s prison system is on track to have the deadliest year in its history. This rise in prison deaths coincides with an aging of the prison population, but also with a doubling of incidents involving the use of force by officers over the past five years.

Now, six months after the Miami Herald began an investigation into the questionable deaths of inmates in Florida’s state prisons, the U.S. Department of Justice is gathering evidence for a possible investigation into whether the agency has violated the constitutional rights of prisoners. The Justice Department has sent letters to Florida’s three U.S. attorneys informing them of the inquiry.

State lawmakers also are scrutinizing the prison system in the wake of a public outcry by human rights groups and prison reform activists. Gov. Rick Scott last week named a new DOC secretary, Julie Jones, to head the department — which is the third-largest prison system in the nation, with 101,000 inmates and a $2.1 billion budget.

In yet another development, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement this month asked the Legislature for an additional $8.4 million to probe prison deaths and cases involving excessive force by Florida law enforcement officers.

The Herald has been raising red flags for months now about the DOC. The agency was forced to make some policy changes after the newspaper reported that three former employees of the psychiatric unit at Dade Correctional Institution alleged staff at the facility had been tormenting and abusing mentally-ill inmates for years.

A slew of other charges were made against other Florida prisons, too. Once the Herald began publishing stories about Dade Correctional, other people came forward and released information about other controversial deaths.

Since initial reports of abuse, the U.S. Justice Department has been asked to weigh-in.

This past June, the ACLU of Florida, Florida Justice Institute, Amnesty International, Florida Council of Churches, and the NAACP announced they sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The letter urgently requested a “federal investigation into [a] series of inmate deaths and abuse of mentally ill detainees in Florida facilities.”

Specifically, the coalition of human rights groups wanted the feds to look into the death of Darren Rainey—a man who died after being left in a scalding hot shower for two hours at Dade Correctional.

The Herald reports this wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. DOJ had to step in and handle problems in Florida’s prison system.

If the federal government exerts control over the Florida prison system, it won’t be the first time. In the mid-1970s, Florida State Prison inmate Michael Costello charged in a lawsuit that prison conditions were unconstitutional because healthcare was so abysmal. Costello filed the lawsuit on a paper bag because corrections officers wouldn’t supply him with writing paper.

As a result, the federal courts, citing the Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, oversaw the state’s prisons for more than two decades, ordering legislators to relieve overcrowding and provide adequate medical and healthcare.

Federal judges have also ruled that Florida’s propensity for gassing mentally ill inmates constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Ron McAndrew, a retired Florida warden, said a shake-up in the department is long overdue and that he hopes the Justice Department will step in further.

“They are getting away with murder, quite frankly,” said McAndrew, who now works as a prison consultant. “There are cases that go back decades and not just state correctional institutions, but juvenile institutions as well.”

Just a few weeks ago, following many scandals at DOC, Florida’s prison chief Michael Crews resigned.