Whistleblower recalls prison abuse, deaths

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The story of Harold J. Hempstead would have ended 15 years ago in Pinellas County. He admitted dealing in stolen goods, was convicted in a home burglary ring, and sentenced to 165 years in prison.

But instead, Hempstead witnessed other inmates die in prison. He took notes and fired off letters and complaints that helped expose a scandal that rocked the state prison system. His initial correspondence with the Miami Herald triggered investigative reports from Herald journalists that raised growing concerns from lawmakers across the state.

Hempstead specifically revealed troubling details regarding the death of a mentally disabled inmate named Darren Rainey in a scalding shower above his cell in 2012.

"The water was turned on. We started hearing him yell through the whole wing," recalled Hempstead. "At first, 'It's hot, get me outta here,' then probably 10 to 20 minutes later he was yelling 'Sorry, can't take it anymore. I won't do it again!'"

Hempstead said guards at Dade C.I. tortured inmates after they discovered the shower would spew scalding water. He said they initially used it to subdue a noisy inmate, then used it on other inmates to exact punishment and abuse. He said he heard Hempstead collapse in the locked shower chamber above him after guards left him there for hours.

"Inmates could avoid the water and stay as close to door as possible, but it would still burn their feet as the water would rise at full blast coming out"

Hempstead also claimed he witnessed corruption, torture, and murder that go far beyond that shower. He said officers starved the inmates (particularly the mentally disabled) and scored it like a game.  

"It was definitely evil," he said. "At first it was 'two- and six-point conversions' and at first I didn't really know what those conversions meant…The three-point was three days with no lunch and dinner."

Hempstead said the sergeant compared it to a Nazi concentration camp when he welcomed new arrivals. 

"When the inmate was brought in he would say, 'Welcome to Auschwitz.'"

In 2012, he said staff would often distribute empty food trays to make it look as they were feeding the inmates. He also claimed they sometimes spiked food with chemicals or laxatives to dehydrate them even more.

"There are ways you can use your bodies to cover the cameras to so camera can't view, so they can slip 'air trays' with nothing on it… and that's why (deceased inmates) Oscar Davis and Darryl Richardson, I still believe they died with something associated with starvation."

Hempstead believes a number of inmates died from abuse through deprivation of food -- or torture, in Rainey's case.

After Hempstead first spoke out to the Herald, the state ordered reforms, and the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation.  Now, as part of a high-profile investigation, Hempstead is in protective management (meaning he spends most of his time away from other inmates). Meanwhile, he has been transferred back and forth across the state, and claims officers in the past have threatened him for blowing the whistle.

"There was never a statement that, 'We're going to kill you.' The implication was, 'You do know things happen in confinement,'" he said.

"In all reality, there is no guarantee he's going to be OK," offered his sister Windy Hempstead. "Their thing is he's surrounded by 25 guards. I'm thinking 'Oh that's safe.' I'd rather that he be surrounded by 25 inmates."

In response to our questions, the Florida Department of Corrections provided records and releases noting a series of changes in state policies and procedures after the events that Hempstead claims to have witnessed.

Law enforcement in Miami continues to investigate the 2012 death of Darren Rainey. The Department of Corrections has offered state resources to assist in the investigation.

In a previous release, DOC stated, “If the investigation reveals evidence to indicate any criminal behavior or wrongdoing by Department employees, DOC will immediately take appropriate action.”

Last year, former DOC Secretary Mike Crews ordered a series of reforms, including a database of inmate deaths, and a review of policies related to custody and care of mentally ill inmates.

“Stories report we have fallen short in specific instances with regard to facility leadership, safety, security, training and services for mentally ill inmates. We’re fixing the problems that have been identified and as we identify new issues, we will fix those too,” he said. “We need to anticipate problems and implement a system-wide approach to correct issues before they become widespread.”

Former Secretary Crews also addressed complaints of misconduct from prison staff. He said “If they break the law, they will be held accountable. This policy will keep those who break the law from putting the uniform back on the next day.”

LINK: Read his official statement (PDF)

Current DOC Secretary Julie Jones had ordered additional changes, stressing accountability and transparency. In an editorial, she wrote, “Ultimately, transparency and hard work will rebuild the trust in this department that is currently lacking. In the coming years, I look forward to working with all of our partners to bring innovation and pride back to the Department of Corrections and earn your trust.”

Jones sent a letter to the Miami-Dade medical examiner requesting an expedited release of findings in the Darren Rainey death investigation.

Meanwhile, Governor Rick Scott signed Executive Order 15-102 and 15-134 to deliver additional changes, which the governor’s press office outlined as follows:

  • Enhance and reinforce the importance of safety in  institutional security reviews through security review committees.
  • Implementation of a four-region security and institutional model.
  • Enhance and reinforce the importance of safety in institutional security reviews through security review committees.
  • Implementation of appropriate staff review policies, classification and practices as needed.
  • Maintain an active memorandum of understanding with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to be provided in a timely manner to the Governor, the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
  • Implement and mandate the completion of specialized training for inspectors within the Office of Inspector General who conduct sexual abuse investigations in confinement settings.
  • Implementation of Department policy and rule that each employee who either applies physical force, or was responsible for the decision to apply physical force shall sign an independent report under oath within one working day of the incident.
  • Establishment of a usage and inventory policy to track, by institution, the use of chemical agents and disposal of expired, used, or damaged canisters of chemical agents.
  • Implementation of policy and rule that ensures medical staff have the authority to use identification numbers when completing incident reports.
  • Implementation of use of force analysis using data driven methodology to ensure that all incidents are reported and properly recorded.
  • Implementation of policy and rule protecting all Department employees who report wrongdoing from retaliation of any kind.
  • Calls for an independent audit of the agency’s operations to be conducted by the National Institute of Corrections and the Association of State Correctional Administrators;
  • Establishes two prototype institutions focused on identifying and measuring enhanced operational methods; and
  • Creates a partnership between the Department of Corrections, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Children and Families to establish best management practices in order to improve mental health

Regarding changes at the Mental Health Unit at Dade CI, the Department of corrections provided the following list of reforms since Hempstead reported abuse. 

  • Crisis Intervention Training (CIT): This training is designed to apply non-force de-escalation techniques and strategies in the care and control of inmates suspected of having a mental illness.
  • Hearing Voices that are Distressing: This training is designed to assist security staff in identifying inmates who are in crisis. The training utilizes headsets connected to audio equipment which provides verbal scenarios to students so they can gain insight and an understanding of how severe mental illness adversely impacts the inmate’s ability to function in a structured environment of incarceration. 
  • Two Second Drill – CIT-2: Follow-up training to CIT.  Provides an in-depth understanding of the purpose and scope of inpatient mental health services.
  • The Role of Security in Mental Health Inpatient Units: This training was developed for security, medical, and mental health staff assigned to work Inpatient Mental Health Units. This course is designed to enhance understanding of the Multi-Disciplinary Service Team’s approach to inmate treatment. This training was provided to the staff at Dade C.I. in December 2014.
  • Added additional Behavior Health Technicians to further facility out-of-cell programming in the Mental Health Unit
  • Audio recording and additional CCTV cameras have been installed in the Mental Health In-Patient Unit to capture more interior areas of the building.
  • Created an Assistant Warden position to oversee the daily operations of the Mental Health In-Patient Unit, delivery of care, and supervision of security staff.
  • Created a Mental Health Ombudsman position in Central Office that reports to the Director of Mental Health Services. Serves as the principal liaison to the Office of Health Services and departmental leadership for ensuring inpatient mental health treatment, services and required activities are provided in accordance with the Department’s policy and procedures.

Jones also released a statement on retaliation which reads, “The Florida Department of Corrections has zero tolerance for retaliation of any kind. As our Department continues to progress through meaningful reforms, and shift the way in which we interact with our incarcerated population, it is critical that we also consider the environments surrounding our staff and inmates… Under no circumstances should any individual be subjected to the fear and anxiety associated with possible retaliation.

"Any member, who intimidates, threatens or bullies others in an attempt to hide their malicious behavior and attitudes will be identified and will face consequences.”

In meetings with state lawmakers, Secretary Jones said, “Following growing concerns over alleged inmate abuse and questions about agency transparency, the Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) agreed that FDLE would assume, ‘…full investigative authority on all deaths at all facilities.’ She also said, “The Department has observed a consistent decline in use-of-force incidents and is currently at a three-year low… As I said last session, to ensure that no use of force incident is overlooked, the Department has begun to run analytics to identify patterns in circumstances leading to a use of force… The governor tasked me with the mission to reform the culture of this agency and to fix what needs to be fixed.”

In response to our questions regarding allegations of under-feeding, a department spokesman said the grievance office receives complaints of improper feeding on occasion, but they are not systemic or widespread. He said there is no current evidence of systemic underfeeding within the state prison system.