Forty Years Later Jail Still Violating Rights

Shortly after my book, CRAZY: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness, was published in April 2006, I received a telephone call from an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice who asked me about incidents at the Miami Dade County jail that I’d described in my book. The federal investigator was curious about my claims that correctional officers, who worked on the ninth floor of the jail, physically beat inmates. During the ten months that I’d spent doing research at the jail, I had been told several times by officers that I needed to exit the floor “for my own safety” while jailers  “put their hands” on troublesome inmates. When I returned to the cellblock later, I was  able to confirm that guards had gone into cells and beaten inmates. One officer was especially infamous for abusing prisoners.  He bragged about it. At the time, I was surprised at how openly officers talked to me about the beatings.

Last Friday, the Justice Department released a three -year study of the Miami Dade corrections department and the federal investigators’ findings confirm what I first revealed in my book. Put simply, the Miami Dade Pre-trial Detention Center is a living hell on earth for inmates with mental illnesses.

 As reported in The Miami Herald, the federal probe found that:

The corrections department is ‘deliberately indifferent” to the suicide risks and mental health needs of inmates. At least eight inmates have committed suicide since 2007 and staffers are not trained to deal with suicidal patients.

The jail does not provide proper medical care, failing to provide proper screenings and health assessments — even blotching the dosages of medicine handed out on a daily basis. Since 2008, at least five inmates have died after jailers failed to treat them as they withdrew from drugs or alcohol.

The jailers engaged in excessive force against inmates, retaliating against them, frequently causing injuries and failing to properly document their interactions. In one case in August 2007, up to nine officers stood around and allowed a jailer to fight an inmate in a ‘prolonged fistfight.’

The conditions at the aging and unsanitary jail pose serious health risks to inmates.

These are all problems that I reported in my book and that I personally observed  more than seven years ago.

In 2006, Miami Dade Judge Steven Leifman gave a copy of my book to Michele Gillen, a CBS news reporter, and offered to get her access inside the jail, just as he had gotten me into the facility. Gillen contacted me, used material from my book for one broadcast, and then began her own relentless campaign to reveal what was happening inside “The Forgotten Floor.”  That was the nickname that jailers had given the suicide wing where the most psychotic patients were housed.

Publicity from my book and from Gillen’s multiple reports, caused such a public outcry that a new corrections director was hired to oversee the jail system and voters passed a multi-million bond issue to construct a new mental health facility for inmates. Unfortunately, that new facility is still on the drawing boards.

No one who knows the history of the Miami Dade jail should be surprised by Friday’s grim report.

In the 1970s, inmates filed a suit because of overcrowding in the jail. At the time, inmates were forced to sleep on filthy floors and lacked basic medical care. Conditions were so horrific that in 1984, a federal judge ruled that inmates’ basic constitutional rights were being violated. If you read my book, you might recall that a community activist, Renee Turolla, launched her own investigation in the 1980s of the Miami Dade jail’s mental health wings. Completely on her own, she began attending court hearings, tracking inmates with mental health problems, and documenting abuses. At a press conference in March 1985, Turolla released a 400 page study that she had financed out of her own pocket Calling her  investigation the most comprehensive study ever done about mental health treatment inside the jail, the Miami Herald publish an eye-popping series about abuses that Turolla had uncovered. In one case, Turolla wrote about an inmate with mental illness who had been arrested 51 times in one year and 44 times in another — yet had never received any meaningful care. In one instance, the inmate had been released from jail and arrested twenty minutes later less than a block away. Turolla described this inmate as being stuck in a “revolving door” because there were no community services available to help him so he was doomed to a vicious jail-to-the-streets-to- jail cycle. She concluded that jails and prisons were not appropriate facilities for persons who needed mental health treatment.

Several years after Turolla issued her report, an industrious Miami Herald reporter picked-up the story in the 1990s and wrote a series of scathing articles about conditions in the jail. Of course, I arrived in 2004 and CBS’s Gillen then launched her campaign. What this means is that shoddy conditions at this jail have been exposed to the public for more than forty years — yet little has improved.

If conditions at the Miami Dade jail were an aberration, then the rest of the country could simply shake its head, sigh, and sleep easy at night. But my travels to more than 46 states in the past five years have convinced me that the overcrowded and dangerous conditions that I observed in the Miami Dade County jail are not uncommon.  

Miami had not been my first choice when I decided to investigate how persons with mental illnesses were being treated in jails. Before Judge Leifman got me into Miami, I spent several days in California at the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles, which often is described as the largest public mental institution in the nation. After three days on its “Seventh Floor,” where I saw its most psychotic prisoners sleeping on mattresses on the floor because of severe overcrowding, my invitation was withdrawn and I was barred from the facility. The jail’s lawyers were worried about what I w0uld write in a book. 

After being kicked out of the Twin Towers, I tried to get into the Cook County jail in Chicago. But its officials didn’t want me inside it either. I then approached jail and mental health officials in New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C.  All of them refused me permission to spend time inside their mental health cellblocks.

What does that tell you?


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Pockets of “deliberate indifference” exists in most jails and prisons. The culture is so punitive in nature, they have gotten off track and impose punishment on top of their sentencing time for the crime. The SMI are extremely prone to this torturous harrassment as they are not only misunderstood but also have no credibility when someone does interview them for allegations of abuse. Funding has been cut back, psychotropic meds are extremely expensive and people are left untreated for the time they are incarcerated with few exceptions.

    This is so sad to see as it wasn’t this bad in the 80 or early 90’s but has gotten worse in the recent decades. The fact that jails and prisons serve the purpose of de facto state hospitals since deinstitutionalization began, is the main reason for such a high SMI population inside the razor wired perimeters. thanks for the article..

    The answer is to divert the SMI away from prison time and allow them treatment on the outside to ensure effective treatment, compliance with meds, lower costs [than incarceration] reduced violence to self or others, and humane treatment for those who already have a difficulty to cope and function within society’s expectations and regulations.

  2. Until we can actually find a genetic cure for these horrible illlnesses , all of us who have mentally ill family members are doomed to a life of constant worry and sadness

  3. It’s funny how an author and news journalist can “discover the travesties” within jails, write a book or news articles that portrays negative images of the Corrections Professionals that have to deal with these conditions daily, yet do not offer any solutions to the problem and are considered effective journalists. These hypocrites are just “trying to throw gasoline on a never ending fire!”

    I got news for anyone interested in negative reporting and it won’t cost you any money to read it: Things are not going to change, until the public agrees to increase taxes to provide sufficient funding for mental health facilites, treatment, medication, etc. This includes agreeing to allow mental health facilities to be built in their communities. Any takers?

  4. Carl and Vickersm4 wrote:
    “The answer is to divert the SMI away from prison time and allow them treatment on the outside…” and
    “Things are not going to change, until the public agrees to increase taxes to provide sufficient funding for mental health facilites, treatment, medication, etc.”

    We can thank de-institutionalization for the current outrageous state of people with SMI. The whole reason that de-institutionalization began has nothing to do with patients’ rights and everything to do with money. Do you know anything about the IMD exclusion? Here is a definition from the NAMI website: “Institutions for Mental Disease (IMDs) are inpatient facilities of more than 16 beds whose patient roster is more than 51% people with severe mental illness. Federal Medicaid matching payments are prohibited for IMDs with a population between the ages of 22 and 64. IMDs for persons under age 22 or over age 64 are permitted, at state option, to draw federal Medicaid matching funds.”

    The answer is so obvious it’s like telling the emperor he’s naked: repeal the IMD exclusion! I would love to see a cost comparison between one year of competent, compassionate inpatient treatment, and one year of 911 calls, police, jail, ambulances, ER visits, short term hospitalizations, emergency medical care for once-minor-now-life-threatening medical issues, social services, and on and on. I can guarantee it costs less up front to treat people with SMI than it does to pay for the downward-spiraling revolving door. 

    See also the Treadment Advocacy Center’s website ( for more on the IMD esclusion, including this blog entry, which reviews my sister’s account of our brother Paul’s struggles with severe mental illness:  

  5. Roblouis331 says

    Pete my. Name is rob I was on the ninth floor and after that I.had. a. Nervous breakdown what is ur phone number I want to Sue city over ninth floor