Upon probing allegations regarding poor treatment of inmates at six facilities in the county jail system — the eighth-largest in the nation at the time — the DOJ discovered a years-long pattern of constitutional violations, including an indifference to mental health needs and suicide risks, inadequate medical care, and retaliation and abuse toward prisoners.
In 2013, the DOJ and Miami-Dade entered into a settlement that entailed a top-to-bottom reform of the county's jails. The county also submitted to a court-issued consent decree mandating supervision of the jails by compliance monitors.
But a decade later under federal oversight, conditions in Miami-Dade correctional facilities still fall below federal standards, and inmates continue "to languish in deplorable conditions," according to four U.S. senators.
In an October letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein of California blame the Justice Department for deteriorating conditions in some of the nation's largest jails in Miami, Los Angeles, and New York City.
NEW: I got a SCATHING leaked letter written by 4 U.S. Senators, saying @TheJusticeDept has done such a bad job of overseeing "appalling" LA jail conditions that they are undermining "public’s faith and confidence in our legal system." https://t.co/i7vlT04Mne pic.twitter.com/kuCDG5wbx4— Keri Blakinger (@keribla) February 13, 2023
The senators demanded answers regarding the lack of progress made under the DOJ's watch.
The letter, recently obtained by Los Angeles Times journalist Keri Blakinger, cites "appalling" public reports of conditions at the jails and notes the high rate of deaths, particularly suicides, in Miami-Dade County facilities.
While the senators acknowledge in the letter that "systemic change takes time" and they "do not expect that deep-rooted problems will be remedied overnight," they complain that constitutional violations in these jails are persisting year upon year.
"The DOJ’s failure to correct or prevent the constitutional and human rights violations in facilities that are under consent decrees undermines the department's broader efforts, as well as the public’s faith and confidence in our legal system," the letter reads.
James Reyes, who was hired last December as director of the Miami-Dade corrections department, says that the conditions described by the U.S. senators do not square with reports on the ground over his first few weeks on the job.
“I can tell you that that is not the feedback that I received,” says Reyes, who previously led the Broward County jail system.
Noting that he can't comment on jail conditions preceding his tenure, Reyes says that compliance with the consent decree is just a small portion of what the department is hoping to achieve.
"It goes way beyond just meeting the provisions set forth by the DOJ," Reyes says. "And that's what our commitment is — to establishing best practices and evidence-based practices that ultimately are going to lead to positive outcomes within our system."
Lingering issues with the compliance program came to a head this past August, when lead Miami-Dade jail monitor Susan McCampbell resigned, effective December 30, 2022, over concerns about inmate housing assignments and the handling of mentally ill prisoners.
In a report outlining her resignation, McCampbell lamented that four inmates had committed suicide between January and August of last year.
Inmate violence was on the rise as well. The number of inmates involved in altercations rose from 1,148 in 2020 to 1,946 in 2021, according to McCampbell. In the first five months of 2022 alone, the figure jumped to 1,220, which, if annualized, would represent an 86 percent increase when compared to 2020.
McCampbell claimed that from 2020 to 2022, the county made ill-fated changes to how it assigned inmates to housing, resulting in "little or no separation" between high-risk and low-risk inmates. She said that while touring the jail system last year, she found that mentally ill inmates charged with violent felonies were lumped in with mentally ill inmates who posed "no threat to security."
The monitor said there was a "lack of understanding how this dysfunction of the classification system contributed to the level of inmate-[on]-inmate violence."
In her rundown of grievances, McCampbell further cited a lack of adequate plans to ensure proper treatment of mentally ill inmates and assess "sentinel events" involving deaths and serious injury in the inmate population.
"Without credible, verifiable data, it is not possible to safeguard inmates with serious mental illness," McCampbell wrote in the August report.
She conceded that there "has undeniably been progress" since the 2013 consent agreement was executed, including the closure of a troubled pre-trial detention wing and the opening of the mental health treatment facility at Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center.
The resignation of McCampbell and fellow jail monitor Robert Greifinger triggered an October hearing during which U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom expressed frustration with the county's failure to comply with the consent decree nearly a decade into the saga. She said that the Department of Justice had not sought sanctions or other relief in years.
"The court became concerned that [Miami-Dade's] lack of compliance was continuing to result in serious and life-threatening consequences — and was even more concerned that, while the agreements provided a mechanism for the Department of Justice to seek compliance through the court system, they had not done so at least since May of 2018," Bloom said, ordering the DOJ to explain its lack of action.
In response, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava explained that her office has been in "learning mode," striving to implement changes within the Miami-Dade jail system. She said she's shifted leadership at the county corrections department, increased staffing, and reduced intake time, among other changes.
"I take it extremely personally what goes on in those jails, and have made it my business daily to be informed and engaged," Levine Cava said.
At the hearing, the Department of Justice argued that cooperation from the mayor's office made formal sanctions against Miami-Dade unnecessary. The DOJ previously told the court that it had been giving the county corrections department some leeway on compliance over the past two years in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The DOJ maintained in recent court filings that it worked closely with the county to address the recent rash of prisoner violence. The agency claimed that it pushed the county to overhaul its jail leadership, prompting the replacement of corrections department director Daniel Junior in February 2022.
Levine Cava touted jail reform as one of her goals during her run for mayoral office in 2020. Her predecessor Carlos Gimenez, now a U.S. congressman, was mayor of Miami-Dade when the county entered into the settlement.
Last year, Levine Cava brought in Gary Raney, a jail-reform consultant and retired Idaho sheriff, to help the county improve its correctional facilities. The county and the DOJ on Friday moved the court to approve Raney as an independent director of compliance for the Miami-Dade jail system.
Raney tells New Times that he plans to bring the system into full compliance by mid-year.
He emphasizes that it’s crucial for the DOJ and the federal court system to provide jails with technical assistance.
“That's what's dragging these [consent decrees] out so long,” Raney says.
During the October court hearing, Raney and Levine Cava said that the county was ramping up the recruiting process for candidates to lead the corrections department's mental health services.
Levine Cava said jails have been afflicted by staffing shortages, which the county is working to rectify.
"We've had a serious deficit of staffing in the jails, and this has been very difficult for morale and that moves into performance," she told the court last October.