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Another Side To A Tragic Story

Dade Correctional Institution exterior
photo by Tami Jo Urban

I do not know anyone who has taken a two-hour hot shower. So when a mentally ill inmate in a Florida prison died after being placed in a shower and left there for nearly that long, it certainly smacked of mistreatment by the guards.

That mistreatment appeared to be confirmed when other inmates told investigators and journalists that they had heard Darren Rainey screaming to be let out and promising to behave, and later observed the guards rushing around to extract him. It did not look good, either, that the temperature control for the shower in question was in an adjacent janitor’s closet, where the inmate had no ability to protect himself from potentially scalding water.

Nor did it look good that it took about two years after Rainey’s death for post-mortem procedures to be complete and investigators to take sworn statements from the inmates present, the guards on duty that night and other individuals connected to the incident. Finally, when investigators released their report late on a Friday afternoon that also happened to be St. Patrick’s Day, all the pieces of an official whitewashing seemed to drop into place.

Most casual observers reading press coverage everywhere from South Florida to the Middle East probably drew this conclusion. Observers have seen stories in which excessive force crops up in jails and prisons before, sometimes stories in which the perpetrators face scant consequences. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that a coalition of human rights groups have requested a federal probe into Florida state prisons, citing Rainey’s death as one of several that point to the need for reform. It is a story whose outlines seem tragically familiar.

But there is another side to this particular story.

As a photograph in the investigative report makes clear, the shower in which Rainey died was nothing more than the mouthpiece of a hose connected to a PVC pipe and fed through a hole in the wall into a long tiled room, where a prisoner could easily stand aside and escape the flow of water. Further, investigators who are not affiliated with Florida’s prison system found that the hot water supply to that janitor’s closet consisted of nothing more than two 80-gallon tanks; the facility’s construction and maintenance supervisor explained that this setup would make it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain excessively high temperatures for any length of time.

Patients with schizophrenia, a condition with which Rainey had been diagnosed, may have trouble regulating their body temperature. This problem is frequently aggravated by the psychotropic medication haloperidol, which is used to control their symptoms. Rainey had received a dose of haloperidol three days prior to his death, and blood analysis revealed it was still in his system when he died.

Rainey’s death in state custody, then, is only one part of this tragic story. The bigger part, and probably the more relevant, is that our jails and prisons have become de facto mental hospitals. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that nearly 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked into jails have serious mental health conditions and that many receive inadequate care and experience worsening symptoms. The people running correctional facilities are often asked to care for some of the most difficult-to-treat patients in society. Prison guards, however, are frequently untrained and ill-equipped to handle these patients. When those in charge are put in difficult situations, they will inevitably make mistakes, sometimes with terrible consequences.

In this instance, Rainey has covered himself and the walls of his one-man cell with his own excrement. His guards were literally left to their own devices to deal with the mess. Since this was not the first time Rainey had done this and then refused to wash himself, according to investigators, the guards placed him in the remotely controlled shower so he could not refuse to start the flow of water and told him to wash off before he could come out.

Was it a mistake to leave an excrement-smeared prisoner in a running shower closet for nearly two hours? The results speak for themselves. But was it a deliberate act of abuse, ranging upward to a potential criminal homicide – and could that position have been proved in court? The office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle concluded that it could not, and the report clearly illustrates why.

While many of us would tend to dismiss the guards’ statements in this situation as collusive and self-serving, especially when taken nearly two years after the event, photographs of the shower and the statements of nurses (who were employed by a third-party contractor, rather than the prison itself) bolster their case. The report also cited major inconsistencies in inmates’ accounts, which conflicted both with video evidence and with one another, and which also made it unlikely a jury would find them convincing.

It is the job of prosecutors to hold people responsible for criminal behavior – and never more so than when the victim is a powerless individual and the supposed perpetrators are state employees in whose custody that victim had been placed. But state employees are entitled to the same presumption of innocence as everyone else. Fairness dictates that outsiders, including journalists, present both sides of the story.

For me, the key to that less-expected side was in the photographs included in the state attorney’s investigative report made public on Friday, which showed the supposed murder weapon in detail: a single stream of water fed by a sink connected to a hose in a long shower stall, from which anyone could have easily stood aside.

A man died while in state custody at an unnaturally early age. Such circumstances should always demand investigation. The fact that this one took two years to get started and three additional years to complete – and then only when subject to press scrutiny – reflects well on nobody involved. But in this case, it seems most likely that the blame rests on an overburdened system responding to a not-obviously criminal circumstance, rather than any attempt to cover criminal wrongdoing.

It is easy to make the case that Rainey’s death was a tragedy. It is plainly much more difficult to make the case that it was a crime, and it is not a prosecutor’s job to search for scapegoats or reach for convictions unsupported by the evidence. Sometimes justice does not deliver the answer we want – or the one we expected to find.

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