I spent the morning reading as many articles as I could find about Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old, Black, poor and mentally ill man from Florida who died in prison in 2012. The Miami Herald, with the courageous testimonies of Mark Joiner and Harold Hempstead – prisoners who heard the screams of Mr. Rainey and participated in cleaning up after he died, assert that Darren Rainey was basically boiled alive. He was placed in a scalding hot shower (180°+) for two hours as punishment for refusal to clean up feces in his cell. Fellow prisoner, Mark Joiner, was told to clean up after Darren died and found chunks of skin in the shower and beyond it. He was instructed to put the skin in the trash. Yesterday, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner ruled the death “accidental.” See the Herald article at http://www.miamiherald.com/news/special-reports/florida-prisons/article56108525.html.
I was made aware of this through outraged tweets and explored it for myself. After reading books like Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, it is sadly no stretch at all for me to imagine corrections officers going to the extremes detailed in various articles about the treatment of prisoners in Florida’s Department of Corrections and in other states across the country. I recognize the myriad ethical issues involved in the historic Stanford Prison Experiment, but I feel compelled to ask: Did we learn nothing from that 6-day nightmare? And this experiment preceded the 400% increase in prison population that was to occur in the following 40 years.
Governor Bruce Rauner of Illinois appointed a commission in February 2015 to explore the status of criminal justice and sentencing reform in the state and to recommend measures to reduce the prison population by 25% in 10 years. As far as I’m concerned, this goal is ridiculously low given the following factors: 60%+ of all prisoners are non-violent offenders, the prison population is aging rapidly reducing the threats these women and men pose if released, and many prisoners would be served far better through treatment of addictions and mental illness in alternative facilities and programs. That said, the commission was made up of some key players in the state regarding restorative justice, alternative innovations, and advocacy for true justice. I am hopeful that their recommendations to the governor will provide a dynamic starting place for more extensive reform in the near future.
The link between the atrocities in Miami-Dade County and the state of Illinois (specifically Chicago) is that the Department of Justice is carrying out federal investigations of corrections and police departmental abuses in both places. This is an important step in the right direction. It shines a spotlight on issues and practices that are all too frequently carried on in the dark. Those who are subjected to abuses or witness them are frightened to give voice to what they see, hear and know since officers often threaten retaliation for bringing them into the light of day. It’s simply a macro example of a dysfunctional family caught in the throes of domestic violence who wants no one to know what’s happening within its walls. Shame, gangster mentality and “boys club” practices make it extraordinarily difficult to bring forward knowledge of abuse in police stations, on the streets, or in jails and prisons. This cannot stand!
Black lives absolutely do matter. Black women and men who are incarcerated still matter. Mentally ill people matter. Those who are weighed down by various forms of poverty matter. If we consider the wisdom of Dr. King once again, who understood that racism diminished both Black and White persons and communities, then we must also assert that correctional officers and police officers matter. We know that not all officers are “bad” or corrupt or remain silent in the face of injustice. Yet, as a collective, they too are diminished by the patterns that have ingrained themselves into our systems and practices. We are all less than who God created us to be because of racism. We are all shamed by the death of Darren Rainey if we allow yet another Black person to be killed in custody with impunity for those who tortured him to death and inattention to the desperate need for U.S. citizens to come together to reform our responses to crime and violence.
As challenging as it is, people who know the truth are compelled to offer compassion for all concerned, seek justice for Darren Rainey and many others, and have the courage to act in the face of racism, injustice and complicit silence.