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'Clock is ticking' on Miami−Dade jails to reduce high number of inmate deaths

Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center near Miami International Airport
Alexia Fodere via Miami Herald
Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center near Miami International Airport

Story updated on Sept. 26

A full decade after the federal government ordered Miami-Dade County to take better care of jail inmates who have mental illnesses, the county corrections department — among the nation’s largest jail systems — has still seen record high deaths and suicides within its facilities.

The county faces a fall deadline at the end of October to prove to a federal judge that its jails are meeting the minimum standards for inmate health and safety required by the U.S. Constitution.

New county leadership and a recently appointed watchdog say they believe that Miami-Dade Corrections is on track to meeting the government’s demands.

But if the court determines Miami-Dade Corrections hasn’t complied with federal government requirements — or shown that it can maintain compliance in the long term — they could face a range of sanctions: from being held in contempt of court to, in the worst case scenario, losing control of the jail system.

DOJ Findings

It was 10 years ago this summer when the U.S. Department of Justice issued a legal complaint against the county in federal court, alleging the jails were violating the rights of inmates under the U.S. Constitution. According to the 2013 complaint, federal authorities inspected Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities over five years and found a disturbing pattern:

  • In February 2010, an inmate died by suicide while under medical observation.
  • In September of the same year, another inmate ended their own life when they were returned to the general population, even though staff noted the person was “combative” and “psychotic” just a day after they entered the jail.
  • In March of 2011, an inmate died by suicide less than one month after the inmate was evaluated as suicidal and placed in a precautionary unit.

“MDCR Jail facilities’ inmates suffer serious harm from defendants’ deliberate indifference to inmates’ serious mental health needs and to the ongoing risk of suicide and self harm, as shown by defendants own documentation,” the DOJ wrote in their complaint.
The Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Department manages six detention facilities and about 4,500 inmates a day on average, making it the seventh-largest in the nation. Jails typically house defendants pending trial or those serving short sentences. Prisons hold those convicted for longer sentences.

The consent agreement

The county entered into a consent agreement and court settlement after the DOJ filed their complaint, and pledged to do a better job in the following areas, among others: screening inmates for mental health risks and categorizing them properly; providing incarcerated people with easy access to mental healthcare; training jail staff to better identify and deal with inmates who are at risk of harming themselves; and curbing use of force by jail staff and ensure inmate safety.

According to U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom, who oversees the DOJ's case against Miami-Dade Corrections, the county was expected to come into compliance with the agreements within six months.

A decade has since come and gone.

“[Following] the Department of Justice filing its lawsuit, the parties contemplated that Miami-Dade County would be in full compliance in six months, and here we are nine years later,” Bloom said during a December 2022 hearing with the county and the DOJ.

In the decade since the agreements were put in place, MDCR jails still recorded record deaths and suicides.

Judge Bloom has become increasingly frustrated with the county’s inability to come into compliance and prevent the fatalities. She compared the situation to the movie “Groundhog day” because nothing had changed after so many years.

READ MORE: Program aimed at keeping Broward students out of jail could be closed by school district

“I don't think anyone in this courtroom believes that these inmate deaths are normal occurrences. I don't know if there's anyone in this courtroom that is willing to say that it's not as a result of certain deficiencies that have been observed,” Bloom said in last year’s hearing.

People suffering from mental illnesses who have been through the corrections system say that, even in recent years, their treatment by the jails was frightening and inadequate.

Ingrid Caputo has been in and out of Miami-Dade jails for years. She said when she was at the county's main inmate intake facility, she and others with mental illness were mistreated.
Beyond the Bars
Ingrid Caputo has been in and out of Miami-Dade jails for years. She said when she was at the county's main inmate intake facility, she and others with mental illness were mistreated.

Ingrid Caputo was incarcerated at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center (TGK), one of MDCR’s main facilities, within the last six years.

Caputo says she suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. When she was incarcerated, she said she and other inmates with mental illnesses were not treated with basic human decency.

“We were considered animals,” Caputo told WLRN.

Caputo says she was forced to take medication without being told what it was, even though she was already taking prescribed medicine for her mental illnesses. When she took the medicine the jail prescribed for her, she had an adverse reaction.

“It made me feel weird in my legs, so I started punching my legs, and they thought I was trying to harm myself. The guards came in and I tried to tell them I had pain, but they didn’t want to hear it. Next thing you know I’m in a red suit, strapped down until they wanted to get me up,” she said.

Miami-Dade Corrections said things have changed under new leadership this year, but would not comment directly on how the jails were previously operated.

Record number of deaths

Last year, 18 people died while in MDCR custody. Five of those deaths were suicides, and six more inmates attempted suicide while incarcerated, according to data provided by MDCR.

In 2013, the year the agreements were first put in place, there were eight deaths in the jails with no reported suicides.

This year, through the end of July, the pace of deaths and suicides has slowed. There have been four deaths in the county jail system; one was a suicide.

An independent monitor, Susan McCampbell, was assigned to make sure that the county was complying with the consent agreement and to issue status reports to the court on the county’s progress.

McCampbell noted in an August 2022 report that COVID-19 was responsible for some of the deaths that year. Still, she wrote, that didn’t absolve county corrections of blame.

“While Covid was the medical cause of several of these deaths in both years, that fact in and of itself does not relieve the County of its duty to care for ill inmates,” she wrote.

McCampbell resigned last year, citing systemic issues within the county jails that still weren’t being addressed, ten years into the agreement.

“The deficiencies identified by the Independent Monitors are long-standing,” McCampbell wrote in her August 2022 status report. “At the core of the County’s inability to gain and sustain compliance are the internal culture of the organization, leadership ambivalence, and absence of sufficient subject matter expertise.”

Reached by WLRN over the phone, McCampbell declined to comment, citing a court order not to speak to the media.

James Reyes, Miami-Dade Corrections’ new director, said that the high rate of inmate mortality was one of the main reasons he was brought in this January.

“It's something that we take very seriously,” Reyes told WLRN.

He said the jail now has a better classification system for people who enter the jails, that helps to assess risks of violence and self-harm. He also said that MDCR has worked to give inmates more “out-of-cell time” to reduce suicide risk.

“We know that one thing's for sure: leaving folks behind their cells for extended periods of time does not improve their mental health. We know that getting them out from behind those doors and having them interact more with our staff exponentially [improves] conditions of confinement,” Reyes explained.

December status conference

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is shown before a news conference, Monday, April 5, 2021, in Miami. On May 3, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order canceling all local COVID-19 restrictions. However, Miami-Dade County continues to have mask rules at county government facilities. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is shown before a news conference, Monday, April 5, 2021, in Miami. Levine Cava attended a December 2022 court hearing about Miami-Dade's jails and pledged to improve conditions for inmates.

Last December, during a status hearing in federal court, the DOJ asked to enter into a new agreement with the county to get conditions in the jails under control.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava attended the conference, and spoke directly to the judge about her priority in getting the jails into compliance with the agreements.

“I, once again, am here before you to underscore the commitment that I hold to bringing our Corrections into full and lasting compliance with both the Consent Decree and the Settlement Agreement,” Levine Cava told the judge according to a transcript of the Dec. 16, 2022, hearing.

Bloom was notably critical of the county for taking so long to protect the safety of inmates in their care.

“As the clock is ticking, and as these new agreements are reached for compliance that should have taken place nine years ago, people are dying,” Bloom said to the DOJ during the conference. “So do you understand the urgency on the Court's part to prevent more needless deaths?”

Levine Cava promised that her administration would tackle the deeper issues within corrections that were identified by the court and McCampbell, the independent monitor, including lack of training and an ingrained culture that was hampering progress.

“We are assuring that… we can establish the new leadership, improve our culture, and maintain a qualified workforce with improved morale, very essential to moving forward,” Levine Cava told the judge.

“So do you understand the urgency on the Court's part to prevent more needless deaths?”

The DOJ requested a final deadline of October 2023 for the county to fully comply with the original 2013 consent agreement. If the county jails aren’t in compliance by then, the government will punish the county with sanctions to be determined at that time.

“We will evaluate … the situation, and offer the Court appropriate sanctions at that time,” DOJ attorney William Maddox told Bloom during the December hearing.

Maddox did not respond to requests for comment from WLRN for this story.

Jonathan Smith, an attorney who used to work for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, told WLRN that the court can seek different remedies if a law enforcement agency does not meet the standards set in a consent agreement, also known as a consent decree.

“The most limited remedy is that the court can enter supplemental orders to try to ensure that the guidance in the consent decree is clear enough,” he said. “If they don't, the court can hold the parties in contempt… and fines could be imposed.”

In the most drastic of cases, the court can appoint a third party, called a “receiver” to take over the jail system if the government believes that the law enforcement agency isn’t doing a good enough job on their own.

“The court will appoint its own officer to go in and supplant the warden of the jail and run the jail with the powers given to him by the court,” Smith said.

Because a receiver has the power of the court behind them, they are allowed to sometimes circumvent the county government and local rules in order to get the jail system on track, Smith explained.

A federal judge overseeing a consent agreement in New York City recently hinted that Rikers Island jails may be placed under receivership because the city government has failed to get violence in check.

New leadership 

Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Director James Reyes
Miami-Dade County
Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation Director James Reyes

Following the December status conference, MDCR got new leadership.

The county hired Director Reyes in January — at a salary of about $300,000 a year — and the federal court appointed Sheriff Gary Raney to be an “Independent Compliance Director” (ICD) for the county’s corrections department until Oct. 31, 2023.

A retired law enforcement professional, Raney had been contracted with the county as a consultant prior to the court appointing him to get the jails in compliance with their requirements.

The court published Raney’s self-assessment report in June for the county’s progress from February to May 15, and it appeared progress was being made.

“Overall, the path to compliance for MDCR is on track and the ICD is confident the Court will see great improvements,” Raney wrote in the progress report.

Raney wrote that the jails had to overcome an underlying culture that hindered any kind of change.

“It has often been said that the MDCR culture was, ‘Keep your head down, do the minimum and you’ll be okay,’” he wrote.

Speaking to WLRN, Raney said that the prior culture in MDCR was resistant to change, to a point that it made it difficult for the previous administration to fix the issues.

“Innovation wasn't welcomed. I mean, when I came here, I could see that there was just some stagnation of thought, and people who just wanted to come in and say ‘I’ll do my job.’”

Inmate’s firsthand experience

Flave Nickerson, a 60-year-old man who said he suffers from schizophrenia and paranoia, has been incarcerated multiple times, most recently from January to May of this year. Nickerson told WLRN that he has seen the negative corrections culture firsthand.

“You’ve got some people who don’t care about your problem. They’re just there to do their eight [hours],” Nickerson said. “I've seen corrections punch a guy, choke a guy, kick a guy. They’ll drag you out in the hallway where there’s no cameras and they’ll rough you up… knowing the man ain’t stable upstairs.”

Raney said the culture in MDCR has changed under Reyes’ leadership, and the jail system has improved because of it.

Flave Nickerson says he deals with schizophrenia and paranoia. He's seen a change in Miami-Dade jails under new leadership, and finds that corrections staff care more about inmates with mental illnesses.
Beyond the Bars
Flave Nickerson says he deals with schizophrenia and paranoia. He's seen a change in Miami-Dade jails under new leadership, and finds that corrections staff care more about inmates with mental illnesses.

Nickerson agrees that things have improved, particularly at MDCR’s main intake facility — the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center (TGK).

“Things have gotten better at TGK. I remember a time when they didn't care. But in this day and time, they pay a lot more attention,” Nickerson said.

Even with the progress, Raney’s June report shows that there are still issues to address within the jails.

He wrote that there were more incidents of battery – inmates hitting other inmates – in the first quarter of 2023 than the same period last year, even after new leadership was brought in. There were 466 instances of battery from January to March of 2023, compared to 385 instances during the same period in 2022. Raney noted that the difference in numbers may be attributable to the shifting jail population.

A graph of battery and use of force incidents in Miami-Dade jails from the Independent Compliance Director's June self-assessment report. Battery is when inmates harm other inmates. Use of force is when corrections officers use physical force against inmates.
Southern District of Florida U.S. District Court
A graph of battery and use of force incidents in Miami-Dade jails from the Independent Compliance Director's June self-assessment report. Battery is when inmates harm other inmates. Use of force is when corrections officers use physical force against inmates.

Raney said MDCR wants to reduce battery and uses of force against inmates by corrections staff by offering employees better training and finding inmates who are repetitively involved in violence and addressing their issues.

With the calendar closing in on the October 31 deadline, Raney seems confident that Miami-Dade Corrections will satisfy the court that it has met the requirements of the consent agreement.

“You can quote me on this. I believe that MDCR is in substantial compliance on all provisions today,” Raney told WLRN.

It will ultimately be up to the federal court and the U.S. Department of Justice to determine if MDCR has made good on the agreement after 10 years — and if they can maintain compliance even after Raney is gone.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Editor's note: At the original time of writing, there had been three deaths in MDCR facilities in 2023. There was a fourth inmate death in June, after WLRN initially requested data on deaths in jail custody. The story has been updated to reflect the additional information.

Joshua Ceballos is WLRN's Local Government Accountability Reporter and a member of the investigations team. Reach Joshua Ceballos at jceballos@wlrnnews.org
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