Darren Rainey family settles suit in brutal prison shower death

The family of Darren Rainey, the 50-year-old schizophrenic inmate whose barbaric shower death led to sweeping reforms in the Florida prison system, has settled a civil rights lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections, the Miami Herald has learned.

The settlement notice, filed in federal court in Miami last week, did not disclose the amount or terms of the agreement.

The deal comes nearly six years after Rainey’s death, which was all but ignored by authorities until 2014 — when the Miami Herald wrote about it as part of a three-year investigation into the abuse and suspicious deaths of inmates in Florida state prisons.

It also comes as Florida is set to open a new residential prison treatment facility next month for state prison inmates with mental illnesses. The program is one of a number of initiatives for inmates with disabilities begun since the Herald’s series.

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The shower in the mental health unit at Dade Correctional Institution stripped the skin off of Darren Rainey’s body after he collapsed.

Rainey’s daughter, brother and sister filed the civil lawsuit against the department; Corizon, its medical contractor; Jerry Cummings, the former warden at Dade Correctional Institution; and two corrections officers, Roland Clarke and Cornelius Thompson. It charged that they had subjected Rainey to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of his constitutional rights.

“I’m thankful for the family appears to have reached a resolution. However, it is not finalized at this moment, so I am reserving any further comment,’’ Milton Grimes, the Rainey family attorney, said on Thursday.

The FDC did not comment, and the Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching the attorneys for the other defendants on Thursday.

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Inmate Harold Hempstead wrote to the Miami-Dade state attorney and other law enforcement offices, describing what had happened to Darren Rainey. He was ignored until his story was reported in the Miami Herald. He has been moved to a prison in another state for his own protection.

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Harold Hempstead, the whistleblower who alerted the Herald to Rainey’s death, said he is grateful that the case not only led to changes in Florida, but prompted other states to rethink the way they treat and house inmates with disabilities.

“Even though it was a really bad and evil thing, when I look back and see the good that came as a result of attention to the problems in the prison system, I’m happy. It’s sad that someone had to die to make change happen. But they say God has a way of bringing good out of evil,’’ said Hempstead, who is now assigned to a prison out of state for his protection.

On June 23, 2012, Rainey was locked in a blistering hot shower by corrections officers who had specially rigged it to punish inmates who misbehaved in the prison’s mental health unit, the Herald found. The temperature controls were in another room.

Rainey screamed and begged to be let out of the steaming stall for nearly two hours until he finally collapsed and died, his skin peeling off his body, the Herald found.

Dade CI’s guards also used other forms of torture: dousing prisoners with buckets of chemicals, over-medicating them, forcing them to fight each other and starving them. A group of officers at the prison that served inmates empty food trays was known as the “diet squad.’’

For more than a year afterward, Hempstead, an orderly at the prison, sent letters to Miami-Dade homicide detectives, the county medical examiner, the office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and the prison system’s inspector general, telling them that the guards at the prison had killed Rainey and were harming other inmates. But no action was taken.

Authorities, facing public pressure after the Herald stories, finally reopened the case. The Department of Corrections forced the warden and assistant warden out, the head of the agency stepped down and dozens of officers accused of abusing inmates across the state were fired or forced to retire.

Florida lawmakers and the governor then undertook a number of statewide reforms in the treatment and housing of inmates with mental illnesses and other disabilities. Next month, a new residential mental health treatment center is scheduled to open at Wakulla Correctional Institution, located in the Panhandle.

Rainey, who grew up in Tampa, was serving a two-year sentence for drug possession and had been at Dade for about four months at the time of his death. He had reportedly soiled himself in his cell and refused to clean himself up, angering the guards, who forced him into the shower.

The officers claimed they checked on Rainey every half an hour and that he was fine.

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Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle chose not to charge corrections officers in the death of Darren Rainey. An inmate’s letters to her office stating that Rainey was locked in the shower and begged to be let out, only to be mocked, were ignored.

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In March 2017, Fernández Rundle issued a final report on the case, announcing her decision not to file charges. She pointed to the autopsy results, which concluded that his skin damage was not caused by burns, and her contention that many of the witnesses, including Hempstead, were not consistent in their statements.

A Miami Herald analysis of her investigation, however, showed that the detectives failed to pursue key lines of questioning and ignored or downplayed leads provided by credible witnesses, such as medical personnel and corrections officers.

Rainey’s death nevertheless led to the growth of an active prison reform movement by human rights groups, among them a local group called SPAN (Stop Prison Abuse Now). Its activists have held protests and pressured the state for changes.

Disability Rights Florida, the Florida Justice Institute, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU of Florida — along with many civil rights attorneys around the state — spearheaded a call for the more humane treatment of Florida’s 99,000 inmates.

The U.S. Department of Justice continues to investigate Rainey’s case. Miami FBI spokesman Michael D. Leverock said: “We are not in a position to comment on this matter at this time.”