Florida's state-run prison system is being hammered with allegations that guards abused and even killed inmates -- including one incident where, according to a witness, the skin was scalded off a prisoner's body in a shower -- leaving officials scrambling for answers and human rights groups urging the feds to intervene.
In a stinging rebuke of Florida’s prison system, several current and former inspectors recently went on record claiming workers were routinely ordered to ignore evidence of brutal beatings and other alleged crimes taking place behind bars.
State lawmakers like Republican Sen. Rob Bradley are now backing a bill that would restructure the state’s problem-plagued system by creating an independent oversight board to watch over the Department of Corrections and strip its power to self-police.
“Ultimately, the leadership of our state is responsible for doing what is right and for restoring public faith in our corrections system,” Bradley told FoxNews.com.
The DOC is Florida’s largest agency with 22,000 employees and more than 100,000 inmates, and can preside over its own internal investigations. The oversight panel, if approved, would have the authority to probe allegations of fraud, inmate abuse and corruption. It would also have subpoena powers.
Bradley said that if the plan is adopted, it would demonstrate the state taking a "hard stand against abuses within our correctional system" and an environment he said has "allowed or disregarded" those abuses.
The problems have been piling on for the FDOC for some time now.
Under its oversight, prisoners allegedly have been gassed by guards, found collapsed, beaten in their cells and tortured by officers who are accused of using scare tactics to keep inmates in line.
In one case, a 50-year-old mentally-ill inmate at the Dade Correctional Institution’s psychiatric ward reportedly died after his skin was partially burned off his body.
Witnesses and DOC documents say Darren Rainey had been handcuffed and locked in his cell the night before. He was taken to the showers as punishment for defecating in his cell and left there for nearly two hours. Rainey, who was serving time over a cocaine possession charge, could be heard shouting as the water -- which was reportedly rigged to a scalding 180 degrees – ripped at his skin.
He screamed and screamed for help.
“I can’t take it no more, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again,” he yelled, according to a grievance complaint obtained by The Miami Herald.
Despite his calls, no one came.
Others heard corrections officers taunting Rainey, asking him how he liked his shower.
When guards finally checked in on him, they found him on his back and not breathing.
According to the May 2014 Herald investigation, a nurse on duty claimed the incident was never properly investigated by the DOC or the Miami-Dade police. There were also accusations that the DOC tried to cover up the incident.
Mark Joiner, a prisoner at Dade Correctional Institution’s psych ward at the time, told the newspaper he had seen the entire incident go down. He said that guards connected a hose from the water supply directly into a makeshift pipe that fed the shower. The controls inside that shower could be activated properly from the inside, he said.
Joiner reportedly said he was ordered to clean up the scene, and saw chunks of human skin in the stall.
Last week, three current and former DOC employees, who were also members of the Ku Klux Klan, were arrested for conspiring to kill a black inmate following his release from prison, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced during a press conference.
Thomas Driver, David Moran and Charles Newcomb were arrested and charged with one count of conspiracy to commit murder. The alleged plot to kill the inmate was concocted following a fight between the inmate and Driver. Driver told an FBI informant he would “kick [the inmate’s] freakin’ throat out” and “stomp his larynx closed.”
Driver and Morgan worked at the DOC Reception and Medical Center at the time of their arrest. Newcomb used to work at the same facility, which provides medical care for Florida’s inmates. According to the Bondi, the three men planned on killing the inmate by “injecting him in the neck with insulin” and “in case that didn’t work,” they had a loaded firearm nearby.
Since the Herald’s initial investigation in 2014, human rights groups like Amnesty International, Florida Justice Institute and the American Civil Liberties Union have all raised red flags about the treatment and suspicious deaths of prisoners.
In a July 25, 2014, letter obtained by FoxNews.com, five human rights groups asked for the federal government to weigh in. They argue in the letter that given Florida corrections officials and other agencies “have gone to such lengths to avoid an investigation that could hold someone accountable for [Rainey’s] death, we urge the U.S. Department of Justice to explore the need for an investigation of the death of Darren Rainey, allegations that scalding hot showers are or have been used as a form of punishment on other mentally ill inmates as well as other forms of inappropriate punishment.”
The DOJ can act if a systemic pattern or practice that causes harm is found in the complaint. If that happens, the DOJ could send the state or local government a letter that describes the problems and steps they must take to fix them. If no common ground can be reached, the DOJ could file a lawsuit in federal court.
The Justice Department currently has open investigations in 20 states including California, Alabama and Pennsylvania.
Earlier this month, the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted to approve the appointment of Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones, the head of Florida’s troubled prison system.
During a committee hearing, Jones, the fifth DOC secretary in as many years, said she was working to “transform the culture” of the department and said that she is making it clear to prison officials that reports of corruption or abuse will be investigated thoroughly.
Jones defended the DOC and pushed back on claims the department had “turned a blind eye.” She said Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s general counsel has looked into “every investigation to make sure there is no stone left unturned and I can assure you that the perception is not reality.”
FDOC spokesman McKinley Lewis also told FoxNews.com this week that the department “looks forward to reviewing all options put forward by the legislature.”
But some say there have been numerous cases that document abuse in Florida’s prisons, and the DOC should not settle for cosmetic changes.
“The only way to fix the toxic culture in the Department of Corrections is to hold people responsible for their actions – including criminal charges for criminal behavior,” Baylor Johnson, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Florida, said.
In March, however, U.S. District Judge William Stanford dismissed a lawsuit filed by six former DOC investigators. They claimed they were retaliated against for exposing a cover-up in the death of Randall Jordan-Aparo, a 27-year-old asthmatic inmate who died at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010 after being gassed by guards with noxious chemicals.
The case fell short on a legal technicality and was dismissed.
Johnson said the establishment of an oversight board, as proposed in the legislature, would be a step in the right direction but warned it would only be “effective if it is truly independent and comprised of principled people committed to rigorous oversight and capable of resisting political pressure.”