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Florida's prisons require reform

Published in: Miami Herald

Prison staff brutality typically falls within a fairly narrow range — beatings, stompings, throwing someone down the stairs, gratuitous Taser shocks. Florida correctional officers came up with something new: locking prisoners in scalding showers.

Like other staff cruelty, this practice sometimes kills. Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old man with schizophrenia confined at Dade Correctional Institution, died on June 23, 2012, his skin slipping from his body, after guards kept him in a 180-degree shower for almost two hours. His is just one of many recent cases of staff cruelty against Florida inmates, some fatal.

In Florida as across the country, the victims are disproportionately prisoners with serious mental illness. Whether the violence is ostensibly the legitimate use of force to control disruptive prisoners posing a threat to facility security and safety or gratuitous savagery, it is most likely to occur in the solitary confinement units in which prisoners with severe mental health problems predominate and even within mental health units.

Prisoners with mental illness in Florida confront a correctional mental health system that is not equipped to provide the treatment they need to help control their symptoms, gain insight into their condition, or manage their lives. Untreated or poorly treated, they are likely to engage in conduct that, while typically non-threatening, staff may find provocative — yelling, banging their doors, cutting themselves, refusing to follow orders.

Rainey allegedly defecated in his cell and refused to clean it up. Prisoners with mental illness are more likely to be cited for breaking the rules. And they are more likely to end up injured or even dead from abuse by staff.

The use of force by Florida corrections officers has roughly doubled since 2008. But the statistics do not document how often the force was unnecessary, excessive or malicious. Long-time observers of Florida corrections say staff violence prisons is nothing new, and may be growing worse. Cover-ups may be common; staff who report abuse risk losing their jobs or retaliation by fellow officers.

Changing a longstanding culture of violence is tough. Every prison, and every prison system, has its mostly unwritten rules that govern how staff acts toward inmates. Corrections experts agree that it takes strong, committed leadership at the top to insist that abuse will not be tolerated, to ensure that claims of possible misconduct are investigated thoroughly and promptly, to protect whistle-blowers, and to hold staff accountable for not following the rules.

Change also requires a committed governor and legislature willing to ensure that correctional leaders have the financial resources and political support they need. It takes money to provide well-trained front-line staff and supervisors to manage a prison population of more than 100,000 safely and professionally. It takes money to ensure prisons are decent places to live and work in. Lawmakers’ plans to boost prison funding by $43 million will enable some capital improvements and new positions, but absent significant additional investments, the agency will remain deeply troubled.

Reducing the prison population would also help, but the legislature has shown little appetite for the sensible sentencing reforms that have worked in other states.

For prisoners with mental illness, zero tolerance for staff abuse is a starting point. But the state needs to provide mental health services by qualified professionals for the 17,000 prisoners on the mental health caseload. Mental health training for staff should also help diminish the violence..

Finally, it takes a willingness to pay close attention — not just the day after yet another prisoner death, but over the long haul.

Persistent reporting, including the Herald’s strong investigative series, leaves no doubt about the problem. The question is whether the state’s leaders have the gumption to do something about it.

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