Miami-Dade County’s Corrections and Rehabilitation Department — one of the largest in the U.S. — has until the end of October to prove to a federal judge that it’s taking proper care of its inmates.
A new federal report published this month shows that Miami-Dade Corrections Health Services (CHS) has made strides towards improving conditions in county jails: the rate of inmate-on-inmate violence has dropped and mentally ill people in custody have more opportunities for therapy.
CHS is staffed by Jackson Health System.
Independent monitors appointed by the federal judge stated that the county has a good chance of satisfying federal authorities, if they can just make some changes and get over staffing hurdles before the deadline.
“We maintain a guarded optimism that CHS … is on course to attain full compliance with the remaining requirements before the scheduled status hearing in November 2023,” the monitoring team wrote in their report.
The county manages six detention facilities and about 4,500 inmates a day on average, making it the seventh-largest in the nation. Jails typically house defendants pending trial or those serving short sentences. Prisons hold people convicted for longer sentences.
WLRN previously reported that Miami-Dade Corrections and Rehabilitation (MDCR) has been under a legally binding consent agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice since 2013.
The DOJ required MDCR to improve conditions in its facilities after the government found a high rate of inmate deaths and suicides and lackluster treatment of people with mental illnesses.
Last December, federal judge Beth Bloom was rankled by the lack of progress by MDCR up to that point. Eighteen inmates died in MDCR custody in 2022 alone — five by suicide. Four inmates have died so far in 2023, one by suicide and three from natural causes, according to corrections officials.
The judge made her frustration clear at a December 2022 hearing:
“Have you ever watched the movie ‘Groundhog Day’? … This appears to be somewhat akin to what happens in that movie,” Bloom said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “Because as the clock is ticking, and as these new agreements are reached for compliance that should have taken place nine years ago, people are dying.”
If the corrections department does not meet the requirements of the agreement by the end of October, it could face sanctions from the court — possibly a federal takeover of the jail system in the worst case scenario.
Since the December hearing, however, the monitors have seen progress in key areas of MDCR. They attributed much of the change to new leaders who started in 2023: Corrections Director James Reyes and Independent Compliance Director Gary Raney.
“Mr. Raney’s proficient leadership has accelerated meaningful revisions to compliance strategies, with tangible alterations certain to lead to even greater successes,” the monitors wrote. “Additionally, MDCR Director Reyes’ appointment as an exceptionally qualified Corrections Director has brought stability and professionalism.”
One positive change the monitors noted was that mentally ill inmates were transferred to a more “open” dorm at the Metro West Detention Center, where they have opportunities for group and individual therapy activities.
“By offering diverse therapeutic activities and a conducive living space, the facility has taken significant strides in fostering a healthy and supportive environment for those with mental health needs,” they wrote.
But a major hurdle has kept the county from coming into full compliance with the consent agreement: staffing.
“A critical obstacle to achieving Substantial Compliance with specific mental health provisions in the Agreement has been the deficiency of mental health personnel. Despite the commendable skills and unwavering commitment observed from the current staff, an understaffing issue has arisen, impeding the timely and complete execution of essential tasks,” the monitors wrote.
In May, Corrections Health Services had a backlog of about 2,400 psychiatry consults with inmates. That backlog was down to about 1,500 consults left in June, according to the monitor’s report.
CHS told WLRN that in order to get through the waiting list of consultations, they have added seven part-time and one full-time positions specialized in psychiatry.
The county also contracted with telemedicine service ForeFront Telecare in June to conduct remote psychiatric consultations from the Metro West Detention Center.
Jackson Health Systems spokesperson Lidia Amoretti told WLRN via email that the backlog is now down to 26 patients with routine check-ins.
“Efforts to address the backlog of psychiatrist consultations remain an ongoing initiative,” Amoretti said.
Overall, the monitors’ report painted an optimistic picture that Miami-Dade’s jails have improved enough to satisfy the DOJ’s requirements. The ultimate decision, however, sits with the federal court, as to whether MDCR and CHS have done enough to improve conditions for Miami’s jail population.