A shocking new exposé in The New Yorker magazine documents how prison guards at the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida have subjected mentally ill prisoners to vicious beatings, scalding showers and severe food deprivation. Journalist Eyal Press notes the guards act with near impunity since prison staff, including mental health workers, often fear reprisals for speaking out. He writes that prisons have become America’s dominant mental health institutions. The situation is particularly extreme in Florida, which spends less money per capita on mental health than any state with the exception of Idaho. We speak with Eyal Press and one of his sources, George Mallinckrodt, a psychotherapist and whistleblower who lost his job after reporting on abuse of his patients in the Dade Correctional Institution’s Transitional Care Unit in 2011.
GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We turn now to a shocking new exposé in The New Yorker magazine called “Madness: In Florida prisons, mentally ill inmates have been tortured, driven to suicide, and killed by guards.” In it, journalist Eyal Press documents how prison guards at the Dade Correctional Institution have subjected mentally ill prisoners to vicious beatings, scalding showers, severe food deprivation. Press notes the guards act with near impunity, since prison staff, including mental health workers, often fear reprisals for speaking out.
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According to the article, prisons have become America’s dominant mental health institutions. The situation is particularly extreme in Florida, which spends less money per capita on mental health than any state with the exception of Idaho. Meanwhile, between ’96 and 2014, the number of Florida prisoners with mental disabilities skyrocketed by 153 percent. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, an estimated 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, 64 percent of jail inmates suffer from mental health issues.
For more, we’re joined by two guests. Eyal Press is with us. He’s just written this article for The New Yorker. The piece is called “Madness.” He’s also author of Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times. Eyal Press is a Puffin writing fellow at The Nation Institute. In Miami, Florida, we’re also joined by George Mallinckrodt, a psychotherapist, author and human rights activist. He is a whistleblower who lost his job after reporting on abuse of his patients in the Dade Correctional Institution’s Transitional Care Unit in 2011. His book is called Getting Away with Murder: A True Story.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Eyal, talk about how you discovered this story. And talk about particular cases inside the Florida prisons.
EYAL PRESS: Well, I discovered the story, actually, through people like George Mallinckrodt, one of your guests, and various other counselors and psychotherapists who worked at this prison you just mentioned, the Dade Correctional Institute. And what interested me is that, you know, in the abstract, these — these are people who worked in the mental health ward. When they saw abuse, they have a duty to report it. That’s part of basic medical ethics. And yet, they are, in reality, beholden to the guards for their own safety and security, for their ability to do their jobs.
And so, I wrote about various people in that ward, personnel, who witnessed the abuse and felt stifled, felt unable to say anything about it, in particular a counselor named Harriet Krzykowski, who very early on noticed that inmates were being verbally abused. She also noticed — or they told her, actually, that they weren’t getting their meals, that they were being starved. And when she reported this to her supervisor at the time, she was told, “Look, we have to have a good working relationship with security.” Very quickly after she began, she actually sent an email expressing concern that she wasn’t being allowed to let these inmates out into the rec yard. This was their only fresh air during the day. Very soon after she did that, she experienced reprisal. Guards disappeared suddenly, leaving her alone with inmates. Guards left her alone in the rec yard. Guards left her alone when she was conducting psychoeducational groups. So she kind of got the message that you don’t say anything that might offend the guards. And as a consequence, as she discovers that the abuse is more and more severe, she does not speak out about it, and no one at the prison does.
AMY GOODMAN: When people speak out, they’re called “hug-a-thugs”?
EYAL PRESS: Actually, that term, “hug-a-thug,” is a kind of insult that is used to characterize therapists and counselors who are — who think that the inmates are victims, who think — you know, who sort of imagine, when they report abuse or complain about it, that it’s real. “Oh, they’re just naive.” And actually, Harriet Krzykowski, this therapist, when she took the job, she didn’t believe the inmates and their stories. She was quite skeptical. And I think George Mallinckrodt, as well, was skeptical. It took sort of quite a long time for them to kind of become aware that actually the abuse was real and that everything the inmates were telling them was actually happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us the story of Harold Hempstead, and I’m going to bring Mr. Mallinckrodt into this, as well.
EYAL PRESS: So, the abuse — the murder in this story, that I wrote about, occurred in 2012, when an inmate named Darren Rainey, who was a schizophrenic — severely schizophrenic inmate, was locked in a shower stall and exposed to scalding water that was 180 degrees. He was left there for two hours. When his body was found, he had burns on 90 percent of his body. As I said, no one reported that incident, even though it was well known to the staff. The one person who did report it was an inmate named Harold Hempstead. It’s the only reason, actually, that we know that Darren Rainey — that this happened to Darren Rainey and that investigations have subsequently begun into his death.
AMY GOODMAN: And, George Mallinckrodt, tell us about this other prisoner, Harold Hempstead, and what he talked about when he described what happened to Rainey.
GEORGE MALLINCKRODT: Well, he described a situation where he was in the first floor area below the shower, but he could hear Darren Rainey begging for his life. And from what I understand, Harold Hempstead is actually suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of this event, even though it’s — June 23rd will be four years after his death. So, this deeply affected him. And I’ve always given Harold Hempstead a lot of credit for maintaining his perseverance in trying to get the Department of Corrections of Florida to open a case. And I found out about Darren Rainey two days after it happened, in a frantic phone call from a former co-worker. And I launched my own effort to get Darren Rainey justice, but it fell flat. And one of my responses was to write my book called Getting Away with Murder, never imagining that they could actually get away with murder.
AMY GOODMAN: And, I mean, explain what the shower is, the fact that he was burned on 90 percent of his body, and what Harold Hempstead heard, being imprisoned right below the shower, what he heard that day.
GEORGE MALLINCKRODT: Well, I know from working there that the water was extraordinarily hot. You could not hold your hand under it for a split second before it burned. But to hear Darren Rainey beg — he kept saying, “Please, let me out! Let me out! I won’t do it no more!” And what he had done, apparently, was he defecated in his cell, and the guards’ response was to put him in this scalding shower that was specially rigged, where Darren Rainey had no control over the water temperature. And we found out from other accounts that at least four other patients in the unit were tortured with this hot water treatment before they left Darren Rainey in there to die.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about, Eyal Press, how he came to be known, Harold Hempstead, as “Miami Harold.”
EYAL PRESS: So, Hempstead — actually, his counselors, he told me, when he first came to them and said, “Look, I want to report this. It’s haunting me, and I’m disturbed by it,” he was told, “Look, don’t tell us too much. If you tell us too much, we’ll have to write an incident report. If we write an incident report, that will get you in trouble.” And, of course, what they also meant was it will get us in trouble, with the guards, with the DOC, the Department of Corrections. But Hempstead has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He pressed on. He kept — he kept sending out these complaints, many of which he has sent me copies of. No one —
AMY GOODMAN: That’s what it takes —
EYAL PRESS: Well —
AMY GOODMAN: — to get these complaints out, is obsessive-compulsive disorder?
EYAL PRESS: Essentially, yes. I mean, one would have to conclude. So he sends these out. He gets no response. He sends complaints to the Department of Corrections. No response — or, he gets a response, sorry, but they’re taking no action. He sends complaints to the Miami-Dade medical examiner and to the police. Nothing happens until May of 2014, when the Miami Herald publishes a story about his allegations, a cover story. And he had essentially, with the help of his sister, reached out to an editor at the Herald, who ended up following up.
AMY GOODMAN: And he himself has an unbelievable story, Harold Hempstead, for how long he is serving in prison for the particular crimes he was convicted of.
EYAL PRESS: That’s right. He was convicted of involvement in his early twenties in a string of burglaries. He is serving 165 years for that, 165 years. Since that time, he’s been, as you mentioned, a whistleblower, who has risked his own safety to expose these abuses. And yet, there’s been no indication from the governor of Florida that he will get clemency or that his case might be reconsidered. It’s quite — it’s quite an extraordinary story. And by the way, Florida is second in the nation when it comes to people serving lifetime sentences for nonviolent crimes.
AMY GOODMAN: As he told the Miami Herald and you noted in your piece, Eyal, he said, “You know, I made a lot of mistakes in my life, but nothing I did resulted in somebody dying.” George Mallinckrodt, what happened to the guards who burned Rainey to death in that shower?
GEORGE MALLINCKRODT: Well, in the Florida Department of Corrections, there’s very little accountability. Both of those guards ended up resigning, and one of them actually works for the Miami Gardens police, and the other works for the Bureau of Prisons. So, nothing has happened in the time since his death. No charges have been filed.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about another case, George Mallinckrodt, about Latandra Ellington, a prisoner who was found dead at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida, in 2014. She died just days after telling her family, fellow prisoners and officers at the women’s state prison that a guard had threatened to kill her. Ellington’s aunt, Algarene Jennings, spoke to the Miami Herald.
ALGARENE JENNINGS: September 21st, she wrote a letter to me, and she was telling me about he took her into some room and told her she talked too much, and he will muzzle her like a dog and kill her, and he ought to take his radio and bust her in her head with it. Latandra feared for her life. They told her what “Sergeant Q” would do to you. She was afraid of him. She told me she couldn’t fight these people; and in the same line, she put in parentheses “the guards.” “Please call, Auntie.” And I did. I talked to Major Patterson on September the 30th. October the 1st, she was dead. Less than 18 hours after I talked to him, she was dead.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Algarene Jennings. Her niece, Latandra Ellington, was found dead at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida, in 2014. Former Lowell Sergeant Berend Bergner also spoke to the Miami Herald. He said he faced reprisals for voicing concerns about Ellington’s safety.
BEREND BERGNER: The tone of voice that she had, her crying, you can tell. Especially after 10 years of working with the department, you can actually really tell when an inmate is being sincere and when they’re not sincere. And she just seemed so sincere and distraught. She started to tell me what she was upset about, and then some other inmates had come in the dorm, and then she automatically just stopped, and she kind of broke — you know, just stayed really quiet. And so, I had her fill out a witness statement.
After I took the report that morning from inmate Ellington, several staff members had threatened me for taking the report from that inmate, because they knew that it was true what she was putting in the report, and they didn’t want that to get out. They actually pulled me off to the side, away from a bunch of the inmates and staff, and they threatened to take care of me in the parking lot, is what they told me.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s former Lowell Sergeant Berend Bergner. George Mallinckrodt, he was speaking to the Miami Herald. Talk about this case. Also, for our listening audience, there was an image that passed by of the prison guard in a kind of Mr. America bodybuilder pose. Explain who he is, as well.
GEORGE MALLINCKRODT: Well, this was Sergeant Q. And she, Latandra, actually feared for her life, as he had made threats against her. And Latandra was a young woman with four children, and she was serving a short sentence. But the thing is, about the Florida Department of Corrections, this type of brutality and retaliation is the norm for any inmate that speaks up against a guard. Inmates will speak up, but they know they’ll pay a price. Every single prison in Florida is rife with corruption. I’ve heard from inmates in — from all over the state, that no matter what you want in prison, if you have the money, you can get it. Cellphones, drugs, you name it, you can get it. And one way it gets in is with the guards. So any inmate that questions these types of activities, including fight clubs that guards, you know, have inmates perform in, there is retribution, retaliation. That’s the norm. And so, it’s not surprising that Latandra was killed. We’ve seen evidence of other inmates dying suspicious deaths, too, after they raised issues about guards’ behavior.
AMY GOODMAN: George Mallinckrodt, in your experience working in the prison system, was a guard ever found guilty of abusing prisoners?
GEORGE MALLINCKRODT: Some recently have, but in my unit, that would be a resounding no. In fact, a co-worker was an eyewitness to a beating. She saw how guards handcuffed an inmate, threw him to the floor in a hallway where there were no cameras, and they started to kick the crap out of him, literally. And what happened from that was that she said on the incident report that she didn’t see anything, because she feared retaliation. But in terms of what happened to the guards, absolutely nothing. And the sergeant who orchestrated the beating has since been promoted to lieutenant. And we’re finding out that this is somewhat normal for the Florida Department of Corrections, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us, Eyal Press, about Daniel Geiger?
EYAL PRESS: Sure. In my New Yorker story, I mentioned that at least eight other inmates at Dade were put in the shower where Darren Rainey died. One of them was Daniel Geiger. He was put in there, from what we know, more than once, punished. And he’s severely — he was suffering from mental illness, and this was the punishment administered to him when guards wanted to mete it out. I interviewed his mother, and, heartbreakingly, she was not aware that this had happened to her son. She was not aware that, as we also know now, he was among the inmates who was starved. She had spoken to him, and he seemed to be slurring his words, he seemed alarmingly thin to her — he had lost a lot of weight — but she didn’t know the back story, that he was in this mental health ward where abuse was being administered systemically.
And I should say, and, you know, my New Yorker article makes very clear, that this wasn’t just one case, it’s not just one prison. But in a way, I think that as much as it’s important for guards who do these things to be held accountable, in some respects the guards are the easy targets, and I think it would be a mistake to walk away from this saying, “Well, if we just hold a couple of guards accountable, we’ll have accountability in the system.” The problem is much, much deeper. The problem is that we’ve used prisons, in a sense, as a “safety net” for mentally ill people in this country, particularly poor people who become homeless, who then get involved in petty crimes and end up being funneled into the criminal justice system. And the very predictable result of that, when you put them in prisons where the security staff is not equipped to deal with them — they have not been trained to deal with him, they are understaffed, they are overworked — what’s going to happen? Well, what’s going to happen is a kind of system of sadistic abuse. And that’s what I think George has described, and that’s what the other people I interviewed witnessed and saw.
AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think has to happen?
EYAL PRESS: Well, I think, first of all, we have to expand the debate about mass incarceration to look at — not just at how many people we put in prisons, but the conditions that prevail within those prisons. This is a very hidden world. As a reporter, it’s extremely difficult to get information. And if you don’t have whistleblowers like George Mallinckrodt or people like I interviewed in my article who were willing to speak, you essentially don’t hear about these things. It all takes place behind the walls. So, we have to expand the conversation, and we also have to expand the conversation about how we treat the mentally ill, who were released from state psychiatric hospitals decades ago and are now winding up in jails and prisons.
AMY GOODMAN: And, George Mallinckrodt, as a whistleblower yourself from the Florida prisons, what you feel needs to be done?
GEORGE MALLINCKRODT: Well, as a psychotherapist, my focus is on ending the mass incarceration of the severely mentally ill. And the primary way to do that is to address the source. Every single man and woman suffering from severe mental illness was a child once. The point being, we need to address this at a level in our schools and communities. The mental health safety nets that exist right now are just a patchwork quilt, and few people actually get the treatment that they need.
I once worked for a program that targeted middle school children that had some fairly serious psychiatric diagnoses, like schizophrenia, bipolar, major depressive disorder. And I worked in the Miami-Dade County public school system, which was the fourth-largest school system in the United States. That program has been ended, and the agency I worked for is now bankrupt. So, in this system, there is no way to treat these children that have these diagnoses.
So, we need to shore up our mental health safety nets for children, adolescents and young adults. And keep in mind that anybody with a lifelong history of mental illness, by the time they were 14, 50 percent of these people had symptoms. By the age of 24, 75 percent had symptoms. So, we’re seeing this early, but we don’t have the resources to deal with the problem. Think of it this way —
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
GEORGE MALLINCKRODT: Children who get — oh, children who get treated early, it’s equivalent to a woman finding a lump in her breast early. That’s the time to treat children.
AMY GOODMAN: George Mallinckrodt and Eyal Press, I want to thank you both for being with us. We’re going to link to your piece, Eyal, “Madness,” that’s in The New Yorker magazine. And, George Mallinckrodt, thanks for joining us, whistleblower who lost his job after reporting prisoner abuse to — prisoner abuse of his patients at the Dade Correctional Institution’s Transitional Care Unit in 2011.