Two years ago, Florida prisoner Darren Rainey died under mysterious circumstances — and people are still trying to figure out what happened through a haze of coverups, sluggish bureaucratic investigations and tight-lipped commentary from upper-level officials.
A death that was initially reported as a heart attack or a self-injury has finally been revealed to be the result of torture: Rainey was placed in a shower with the heat set to a scalding temperature and left there, screaming, until he was dead. The heat was so intense that his skin began separating, a phenomenon known as slippage. A fellow prisoner recalls being ordered to clean it up in the small hours of the morning, by which time prison officials had already started a cover up to conceal the facts behind Rainey’s death.
Rainey isn’t the first prisoner to die in the hands of the state, and he likely won’t be the last. Like many prisoners who have suffered at the hands of guards and prison officials, he was a mentally ill man of color, and this clearly played a key role in his death, as mentally ill prisoners from the same institution report that hot showers were among the tools used to punish and subdue inmates.
Last year, Christopher Lee Lopez, a prisoner with schizoaffective disorder, died while in shackles at a Colorado prison facility. Charles Jason Toll died in 2010 while being forcibly removed from his cell, and his family is still seeking answers. Under notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, multiple jail deaths have occurred. Prisoners have died across the country as a result of physical abuse, denial of medical attention and refusals to provide consistent care for chronic medical conditions, making prison a dangerous place for those with medical issues.
At Dade Correctional Institution, the facility where Rainey died, a prisoner committed suicide in 2013, citing routine physical and sexual abuse by prison guards. On the night of Rainey’s death, multiple prisoners reported hearing screams and sobbing as Rainey succumbed to the heat and steam, while prison guards made comments about him “enjoying” his shower. Prisoners also reported seeing Rainey’s obviously burned and severely injured body being removed before prisoners were ordered to clean the shower, destroying evidence before the situation was reported and the scene secured.
On the night of his death, emails were already whirling between prison and state officials to cover it up — and it took two years before those emails were pushed into the public eye by the diligent journalists at the Miami Herald. They also found records pertaining to the death of mentally ill prisoner Randall Jordan-Apro at Franklin Correctional Institution: The man was thrown into a cell and gassed until he died, with portions of his skin turning yellow as a result of the strength of the gas and its sustained use.
The Department of Corrections has promised reforms to prevent future incidents and protect the health and safety of inmates, but it seems to be lagging behind the reality within the prison system.
Claiming that 99% of prison staff are “do[ing] the right thing,” Secretary Mike Crews seems to be missing the fact that violence against mentally ill prisoners and prisoners of color is routine in Florida prisoners. Reforms to the prison system will require an extensive rethinking of how to train and handle guards, and it’s critical that prisoners be provided with a mechanism for filing grievances and having them actually be heard.
This requires prioritizing the safety and welfare of prisoners, and acknowledging that no matter why they’re in prison, they deserve their basic humanity.
Photo credit: meesh.