The federal government is getting tough with one South Florida jail system, calling it a life-threatening situation for officers and inmates. Is a takeover by the feds on the horizon?
On Thursday the top brass in Miami-Dade County responded to harsh criticism and a hard line of questioning from the U.S. Department of Justice over security breaches, deaths and the care of inmates in Miami-Dade’s jails.
NBC 6 exclusively obtained the latest written communication from the feds to the county – which calls for part of the jail system, the ninth floor of the Pretrial Detention Center, to be shut down immediately.
When asked if he was surprised by the letter, Miami-Dade Deputy Mayor Chip Iglesias responded, "Given that you are probably a G-rated program/newscast I won't repeat what my initial reaction was.”
But Nathaniel Wilcox, head of the community group PULSE, said, “It’s time for the federal government to step in and stop the madness."
Wilcox said the letter written by Jonathan M. Smith, a supervisor in the Department of Justice, and sent to the mayor's office highlights what he's been complaining about for months.
The DOJ supervisor said "... inadequacies place corrections officers and prisoners at risk of life-threatening harm."
Wilcox stated, "Horrible conditions for the people who work there – horrible conditions for the prisoners. It’s time for something to be done – that's substantive."
And the feds give a laundry list of items for the county to accomplish including the prompt removal of prisoners from the ninth floor of the Pretrial Detention Center, which houses a Mental Health Unit. All eight inmate deaths in Miami-Dade jails over the past five months are concerning, the DOJ letter said, but the three that occurred on the ninth floor "are particularly disturbing" because they point toward ongoing problems with the Mental Health Unit since the department found unconstitutional conditions at Miami-Dade Corrections facilities in August 2011. Inmates were being given inadequate mental health care and suicide prevention in the Mental Health Unit, the department found.
The letter says officials should immediately put in place an interim mental health care plan to address the deficiencies on the ninth floor. It also recommends that the county promptly improve the quality of death investigations.
Over the summer NBC 6 reported that a number of inmates held by Miami-Dade Corrections died – some of whom were in custody for minor infractions.
The Department of Justice especially wants to know what happened to Juan Temprana, who died last year.
“I would have expected a phone call – we had these concerns,” said Iglesias, who is the county’s point man when dealing with the feds.
He said the county has made great strides in improving the jail system since the federal government sued in 2011 and threatened to take over if things don't improve.
"Certainly we share the same vision to have a correction system that is both safe for inmates and for our workers, " he said.
When it comes to the June 14 incident where cells doors opened and an inmate jumped off a second-floor railing to escape from inmates he said were coming after him with makeshift knives, the Department of Justice said, "Several prisoners appeared to have prior knowledge the cells would open. Such a breach of security and potential staff involvement muse be investigated and addressed."
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Iglesias said much of the DOJ letter was based on misinformation.
"Mind you a lot of these things require investigation and therefore we ourselves may not know the details until that investigation is concluded, " he said.
The Department of Justice and the mayor's office have been on the phone trying to work things out so the feds don't step in and start running the jails themselves.
Iglesias said county officials aren't going to shut down the ninth floor of the building right now and they are trying to work out a short-term and long-term solution.
Meanwhile, the feds give the county credit for not hiding anything and say it’s been transparent – warts and all.
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