Chris Timmons: Fixing Florida’s prisons will take money, determination

It’s been four years since the media broke the news of Darren Rainey’s brutal mistreatment at the Dade Correctional Institution in Miami.

The 50-year-old Rainey was forced into a scalding shower by prison guards angry that the schizophrenic inmate defecated and threw feces at them and around his 13-by-8-foot cell.

In retaliation, they forced Rainey into the shower and left him there to die. His body was so hot that his skin peeled off.

Immediately thereafter, Rainey’s brother was notified by the medical examiner that Rainey died from “complications” from mental illness, heart disease and confinement. The available evidence says otherwise.

Rainey’s gruesome death is not the only one that has plagued the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC). Nor is it the only death that shows the DOC’s apparent corruption.

An investigative series by The Miami Herald demonstrated that DOC’s prisons were institutions of distrust, fear, intimidation, chaos and favoritism.

The Legislature has demanded greater transparency, oversight, and accountability from the DOC brass.

That starts with Julie Jones, the new secretary of DOC, who has not been exactly willing to concede that DOC has a “culture” problem.

In legislative hearings, she has attempted to explain away what is obvious to everyone: DOC cannot police itself.

It stalled the investigation of its own Inspector General’s Office.

It has intimidated counselors and prison staff who know all the horror stories. Instead, they should be protected under state’s whistle-blower law.

Jones says DOC’s real problem is keeping its employees happy.

Yes, the $2.6 billion department loses 3,000 employees each year.

Yes, a department survey conducted by an independent consulting firm said the top frustration among staff was the low pay. Second was inadequate training. Finally, employees were frustrated by what they consider an impractical contraband policy.

DOC’s “bifurcated” tobacco policy — that is, a policy that allows prison staff to smoke cigarettes but not the inmates.

The Legislature, though impatient with DOC, has agreed with Jones’ point.

The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, at least, has agreed in principle to the $80 million budget increase that has been requested by Gov. Rick Scott.

That $80 million will be used to raise salaries, hire more staff, allow DOC to institute eight-hour rather than 12-hour shifts, and fix its roofs. DOC has major roofing problems: At one prison, 20 roofs need repair.

Throughout the prison system, 140 roofs need repair. The DOC needs $116 million for construction projects but will have to make do with what the Legislature gives it.

So while Jones is right about getting the nuts-and-bolts of prison administration straighten out, she is wrong to underplay the real problems. Sure, overworked, undertrained staff is one of them.

But a climate where aggression is commonplace is another. “Use-of-force” by corrections officers has risen by 1,017 incidents in the last year. That’s 18 percent.

Jones says, “It’s the inmates, yo.”

Maybe. Inmate gang activity has increased from 187 to 244 incidents in the last year. Also, staff assaults are up by 12 percent.

Real reform will require leadership and honesty. The Legislature is right to demand an oversight body for Florida’s prison system.

It must continue to insist that Jones embrace reforms that will repair the damage, not of roofs only, but to the broken lives within those 13-by-8 cells.

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Chris Timmons is a Florida-based writer. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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