Horrific death puts spotlight on US prisons

Horrific death puts spotlight on US prisons

Allegations that a mentally ill prisoner in Florida was tortured to death, followed by a cover-up, have focused attention on the US prison system. Inmates and staff at Dade Correctional Institution in Miami have claimed that abuse was common.

A witness claimed that 50-year-old Darren Rainey, serving a two-year sentence for possessing cocaine, was punished by guards in June 2012 after defecating in his cell and refusing to clean up the mess. According to inmate/orderly Harold Hempstead, Rainey was locked in a scalding shower for over an hour, screaming “I can’t take it no more, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again’’ until he collapsed.

He was so badly burned that his skin had shrivelled from his body, the Miami Herald reported. Yet almost two years later, the Miami-Dade medical examiner has not completed an autopsy and nobody had been charged.

In 2013 another inmate, Richard Mair, hanged himself. His suicide note stated that he and other prisoners with mental health problems were routinely physically and sexually abused by guards.

George Mallinckrodt, a psychotherapist who worked at the unit from 2008 to 2011, complained to the authorities that guards “taunted, tormented, abused, beat, and tortured chronically mentally ill inmates on a regular basis.”

In 2014 at another Florida prison, Charlotte Correctional Institution, inmate Matthew Walker died after being allegedly beaten by staff. Former guards and union representatives told the Charlotte County Reporter that the prison was unsafe for both employees and prisoners.

Several staff were suspended and one fired. However in May, apparently during a confrontation with staff in the mental health unit, another prisoner, Damion Foster, died. Police are investigating.

Human rights abuses within the criminal justice system, including cruelty and wrongful conviction, may seem distant concerns to many people, especially if these happen abroad. Yet ordinary families can find themselves caught up in this.

For example Talha Ahsan, a young British man with Aspergers, has ended up in a US prison for offences supposedly committed while he was in the UK, though his family dispute his guilt. His mother described him as a “very gentle, softly spoken and thoughtful boy." He was arrested in 2006 at the request of the US government and accused of terror-related offences linked with defunct websites, one of which had used a server located in the USA.

Under the controversial Extradition Act 2003, no evidence need be presented in a UK court before a suspect is extradited to the USA. He was held without trial until 2012 while his lawyers tried in vain to get him released.

Though a psychiatrist described him as "an extremely vulnerable individual who from a psychiatric perspective would be more appropriately placed in a specialist service for adults with autistic disorders", he was then flown to a ‘super-maximum security’ (supermax) prison in Connecticut. Amnesty International and other campaigners have highlighted the severe psychological damage which frequently results from prolonged solitary confinement with minimal human contact.

In 2013, he received a reduced sentence in return for a guilty plea, though his supporters believe the evidence against this award-winning young poet is flimsy. While terror offences are indeed serious, the failure to try him in the UK makes it difficult to assess the strength of the case against him.

Public distaste for offenders can be exploited by the authorities to downplay concern about injustices in the criminal justice system. Yet in the USA and throughout the world, people detained in custody and prisoners are extremely vulnerable. While debate continues about the most effective ways to respond to crime, human rights violations can never be justified.

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© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.

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