A Florida Senate panel begins looking into possible prison reform. (Photo by Lonny Paul)

A Florida Senate panel begins looking into possible prison reform. (Photo by Lonny Paul.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Ahead of this year’s Legislative session state lawmakers are turning their eyes to one of Florida’s most problematic state agencies: its prison system.

Whistleblowers and The Miami Herald exposed several inmate deaths last year that appear to have been the result of abuse. Furthermore, the Herald reported that steps were taken to cover-up what happened.

The death of Darren Rainey, who died after being left in a scalding hot shower for two hours by guards, has become a call for prison reform. Since news of the circumstances and lack of accountability surrounding Rainey’s death was published, other stories of inmate abuse have surfaced.

Ahead of the 2015 Legislative session, members of a Florida Senate committee launched a preliminary review of the state’s prison system this week.

The News Service of Florida reported:

The Department of Corrections is grappling with investigations into inmate deaths at the hands of prison guards, lawsuits from whistle-blowers who claim they faced retaliation for exposing coverups of inmate abuse and questions about inmate health care after the state’s privatization of health services began more than a year ago.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement took over as the lead agency to examine inmate deaths based on a “memorandum of understanding” between the department and the corrections agency in an attempt to inject more objectivity into the reviews, interim FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Monday.

Of the 104 cases the FDLE has investigated, nearly a third — 31 — have been closed, Swearingen said. The majority of the cases are non-suspicious, he said. But the workload has become so great Swearingen is asking for an additional 66 workers and $8.4 million to cover costs of investigating the inmate deaths and use-of-force incidents by local law enforcement agencies.

Some senators objected that the inmate death-investigation process is flawed after learning that Swearingen and new Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, who took over as head of the agency on Monday, inherited a “verbal agreement” between their predecessors about which agency would investigate, and under what circumstances.

Currently, all deaths are reported automatically to the FDLE. But that is not laid out in the formal agreement between the two agencies, noted Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

Besides a lack of concrete policy on how to deal with investigating inmate deaths in Florida, the Senate committee also heard about some inherent issues with staff at the prisons.

The Scripps-Tribune Capital Bureau reported that the panel also heard from one of the whistleblowers who originally brought this problem to the attention of federal officials.

According to The Tampa Tribune/Naples Daily News: 

The committee got updates from top state law enforcement officials, and George Mallinckrodt, a psychotherapist who gave a blistering account of what he learned while working in state prison psychiatric wards.

“The Florida Department of Corrections is riddled with sadistic, amoral sociopaths and the people who enable, support and cover-up their crimes,” he told the committee.

Though there have been numerous recent inmate deaths, the incident that sparked much of the outrage was the death of Darren Rainey, who prison guards trapped in a scalding hot shower for hours. He had burns over 90 percent of his body.

Mallinckrodt says Rainey was taunted by guards who asked is “the water hot enough?” as Rainey burned alive.

The reforms come amid leadership changes at the Department of Corrections and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is often tasked with investigating prison deaths. New DOC Secretary Julie Jones’ first day on the job was Monday, and interim FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen has been on the job for just two weeks.

Recently, officials at the U.S. Department of Justice announced they are considering launching investigations into the deaths of Florida inmates to determine whether the state is violating the constitutional rights of prisoners.