- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

MIAMI (AP) - Florida prison officials said Friday that they’re hiring an ombudsman to oversee the treatment of mentally ill inmates in the wake of widespread abuse allegations and cover-ups.

Between 15 and 20 percent of Florida’s 100,000 prisoners have been diagnosed with a mental health condition that requires treatment. The ombudsman will work with about 1,000 inmates with severe mental illness who are admitted to inpatient units. Secretary Mike Crews said the agency also is beefing up crisis intervention training to help guards working with mentally ill prisoners.

DOC officials in recent weeks have also fired nearly 50 prison employees, including several over abuse allegations that they punched and beat inmates.

The growing prison scandal has been problematic for the administration of Gov. Rick Scott’s, who is facing a close election race next month.

The Miami Herald reported that the governor’s chief inspector general received an anonymous letter in Oct. 2012 that included details about prisoners who had died while in state custody and warned of “cronyism and cover-ups are destroying the department.” But instead of opening an inquiry, Melinda Miguel turned it over to the inspector general at the Department of Corrections, which conducted a cursory review.

The letter included details about the deaths of Randall Jordan-Aparo at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010 and Darren Rainey at Dade Correctional in 2012. Rainey, a mentally ill prisoner, was punished in 2012 with a shower so hot that his skin separated from his body. Jordan-Aparo was reportedly gassed while in a confinement cell.

The Scott administration has said the letter came after criminal investigations had been launched.

The questions surrounding the prison system’s handling of the cases has resulted in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement being placed in charge of investigating 82 cases in which prison inmates died from non-natural causes.

A mental health advocacy group has also filed a lawsuit against the department, alleging that officials and contractors ignored widespread abuse of mentally ill inmates in a Miami prison.

The lawsuit says guards at Dade Correctional Institution left Rainey alone for two hours in a locked, scalding hot shower as punishment for defecating in his cell and refusing to clean it up. The warden at Dade Correctional was fired.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and other human rights groups have called for a federal investigation into Rainey’s death and into the treatment of mentally ill inmates in Florida.

Secretary Mike Crews recently implemented a new zero-tolerance policy for employee misconduct amid allegations of systemic abuse among all inmates and failure to punish guards when inmates are harmed.

Last month, the agency announced the dismissal of three officers and two sergeants for punching and kicking a prisoner at Lancaster Correctional Institution. Six other prison staffers were fired for hitting an inmate at Northwest Florida Reception Center in Chipley while the prisoner’s hands and legs were shackled.

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