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Change to treatment of mentally ill in Florida prisons sought

Lawsuit being prepared to change how prison system deals with mentally ill

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TALLAHASEE, Fla. – The 2012 scalding death of a 50-year-old mentally ill prisoner is one catalyst of a soon-to-be-filed lawsuit aimed at changing the way Florida prison officials treat the mentally ill.

Following the scalding death of Darren Rainey, 50, in a prison mental health unit, lawmakers asked the head of the prison system how many of the state's 100,000 inmates had a mental illness.

"I'm fairly certain, 30 to 40 percent would be, would be, conservative," said Corrections Secretary Julie Jones.

The number should have shocked lawmakers, but there was no sign of it.

"Our prison system is now the largest mentally ill care facility in the state," said Florida Legal Services Executive Director Ken Spuhler.

But the number did get the attention of Florida Legal Services, which is preparing a lawsuit to change how the prison system deals with the mentally ill.

"We just don't treat them well. Guards aren't trained to deal with mentally ill prisoners, so they wind up being abused," Spuhler said.

Reggie White is in his 27th year of his life sentence.

"I saw a guy jump on the fence, knowing they were going to shoot him off. Hey man, that's suicide," White said.

Such an incident would likely have brought isolation in solitary confinement, not treatment.

The yet-to-be-filed lawsuit will seek real individual treatment for the mentally ill, better training for officers and realistic punishment.

"So we are essentially trying to have the courts order them to totally reform," Spuhler said.

One reason for the lack of officers trained to deal with mental health outbursts is high turnover and the inability to fill positions.

At the time of the legislative hearing, the Department of Corrections had 500 vacancies for corrections officers. New data was not available Thursday.