Saturday, April 12, 2008

Miami Jails Under Investigation By the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division

Note from Marc:

I thought it would be helpful to set out some information about how the Justice Department is organized, to give you a better sense of how civil rights investigations like this one are conducted.

This investigation, of the Miami-Dade jail system, is being conducted out what is referred to as "Main Justice", rather than through one of the Justice Department's U.S. Attorney Offices.

Because the complaints allege unlawful conditions of confinement in an institutional setting, the investigation is being conducted out of the Civil Rights Division, in Washington, D.C.

Institutional litigation investigations and litigation are conducted out of the Special Litigation Section, a Section of the Civil Rights Division. See

According to their website:The Special Litigation Section is an office within the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, charged with enforcing federal civil rights statutes in four major areas; Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons, Conduct of Law Enforcement Agencies, Access to Reproductive Health Clinics and places of Religious Worship, and Religious Exercise of Institutionalized Persons.

The Section undertakes investigations and litigation through the United States and its territories.

The Special Litigation Section is an office within the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, charged with enforcing federal civil rights statutes in four major areas:conditions of institutional confinement;conduct of law enforcement agencies; andaccess to reproductive health facilities and places of religious worship; andreligious exercise of institutionalized persons.

The Section undertakes investigations and litigation throughout the United States and its territories.Conditions of Institutional Confinement. The Special Litigation Section protects the constitutional and federal statutory rights of persons confined in certain institutions owned or operated by, or on behalf of, state or local governments. These institutions include facilities for individuals who are mentally ill and developmentally disabled, nursing homes, juvenile correctional facilities, and adult jails and prisons. The Section derives its primary authority in this area from the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), which was enacted in 1980.

CRIPA gives the Attorney General the authority to investigate institutional conditions and file lawsuits to remedy a pattern or practice of unlawful conditions. In addition, the Section enforces a provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which authorizes the Attorney General to file lawsuits to seek judicial remedies when administrators of juvenile justice systems engage in a pattern or practice of violating incarcerated juveniles' federal rights.

Finally, the Section also is responsible for enforcing Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in public facilities on the basis of race, religion, or national origin.Further informationConduct of Law Enforcement Agencies. The Special Litigation Section enforces the police misconduct provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which authorizes the Attorney General to seek equitable and declaratory relief to redress a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement agencies that violates federal law.

The Section also is responsible for enforcing the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, which authorizes the Attorney General to initiate civil litigation to remedy a pattern or practice of discrimination based on race, color, national origin, gender or religion involving services by law enforcement agencies receiving federal financial assistance. Further information

Access to Reproductive Health Facilities and Places of Religious Worship. The Special Litigation Section also enforces the civil provisions of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 (Access Act). This Act prohibits the use or threat of force and physical obstruction that injures, intimidates, or interferes with a person seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services or to exercise the First Amendment right of religious freedom at a place of religious worship. It also prohibits intentional property damage of a facility providing reproductive health services or a place of religious worship.

The Access Act authorizes the Attorney General to seek injunctive relief, statutory or compensatory damages, and civil penalties against individuals who engage in conduct that violates the Act.Further information

I worked in that Section as a law student. From 1981-1983, I worked in the Employment Litigation Section, ( (in the Honors Program) , and from 1992-2005, I worked in the Disability Rights Section ( and .


Posted on Sat, Apr. 12, 2008:

Miami-Dade jails reform ahead of U.S. probe


When Nikki Poitier picked up her son on the Miami courthouse steps in March 2007, his face was so bloated that she didn't recognize him. Red, itchy scabs covered his back, arms and neck.Poitier said son Earl Moffett Jr., 31, had contracted a potentially fatal staph infection during a three-month stay in Miami-Dade County jails after his arrest for a probation violation and possession of cocaine -- charges that were later dropped.''He didn't look like my son at all,'' said Poitier. ``He looked like a zombie.''Two months later, Waltaire Choute, 23, died in a county jail while facing murder charges over the death of Burger King manager Jose Luis Leon Olivera.

Choute, a father of four, tied a noose made from a bedsheet through a tiny air vent over a toilet, then hanged himself.The U.S. Department of Justice this month announced a sweeping civil rights investigation into conditions at Miami-Dade County's six main jail facilities.

At the center of the probe are long-standing complaints over alleged excessive force, the suicides of inmates and breakdowns in mental health care on the infamous ninth floor.

Cases like Moffett's and Choute's helped attract the heightened scrutiny. Attorneys David Kubiliun, Lynn Overmann and Brittney Horstman represent Choute, Moffett and 16 other clients in a wide-ranging lawsuit filed in January against the county, Corrections Director Tim Ryan and the Public Health Trust.

''For the past year, we've assisted them in their investigation,'' Kubiliun said of the federal inquiry.

Corrections chief Ryan, who took the helm in 2006, said the county is working to improve conditions.''We take all these allegations seriously and will take all necessary steps to ensure that the truth in this matter is conveyed to the court,'' he said.

The Justice investigation was sparked, in part, by a book about the jail and a separate case involving a man who family members say died because jail officials failed to give him insulin for diabetes.

The 2006 book, Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health System, was written by former Washington Post reporter Pete Earley. It offers an unflattering look into the mental health wing on the ninth floor of the main pretrial detention center west of downtown Miami.

Earley describes how dozens of delusional inmates, some kept naked for their safety, were packed into tiny, spartan cells and how correctional officers roughed up inmates.

Earley said County Judge Steve Leifman secured him access to normally private areas of the jail, giving him a rare peek into a hidden corner of the system.


'The situation in Miami was pretty barbaric when I was there,'' said Earley, who believes jailers have made some strides. ``I'm glad the feds are coming in to put more pressure on, but they're coming in a little late.''Jailing the mentally ill is a national issue, he said. ''You should also look at Rikers [Island] and the L.A. County jail and the other jails across the country,'' he said.

Earley's book, a 2004 Miami Herald investigation, television reports and a searing 2005 grand jury report all helped to push County Mayor Carlos Alvarez to create a Mental Health Task Force led by Leifman.

Alvarez said the county has implemented nearly all the task force's recommendations, such as new training techniques to handle the mentally ill.

Leifman agrees there have been improvements on the ninth floor.The judge said the county is doing a better job recruiting officers, and now offers a 5 percent pay increase to work with the mentally ill.'

'The state is doing a better job getting people out within 15 days so it's not so crowded,'' Leifman said. ``We got the county to pay for more psychiatrists and more nursing staff and social workers.''The county's jails remain stressed. The six facilities have room for 5,845 inmates; most days, there are close to 7,000.At any one time, from 800 to 1,200 mentally ill patients fill the jails, said Leifman, who blames some of the problems on the decrepit pretrial detention center built in 1957.

''The quality of life will never be good up there as long as we have to hold acutely mentally ill people in a jail,'' he said.


Rodolfo Ramos was a truck delivery man who arrived from Cuba 12 years ago and was jailed in February 2006 on armed robbery and kidnapping charges.He spent more than a year awaiting trial before landing at Kendall Regional Medical Center in a coma. A week later he was dead.

The county's medical examiner said Ramos went into shock because he was not supplied the insulin needed to control his diabetes.He died wearing a diaper.While in jail, his family said, Ramos contracted neurosarcoidosis and pulmonary sarcoidosis, which affected his bowel movements. He also came down with Ménière's disease, affecting his balance. Ramos's family says he was moved to a cell just large enough to fit his wheelchair.

They contend jailers tired of caring for him.''Once he was in that cell, he didn't call anymore,'' said niece Yeisleny Nodarse, 21.

``He couldn't move. He couldn't eat on his own.''When Ramos's father, Victor Ramos, finally saw his son at the hospital, his body was covered with bites and cuts from ants and rodents, the family said in a lawsuit.''I can't believe something like that would happen here,'' said Victor Ramos.

The state dismissed all criminal charges against Rodolfo Ramos after he died. The lawsuit says the night Ramos was taken to the hospital, the Metro West correctional facility had one nurse for 2,200 inmates. It says there was no doctor on call and that Ramos died after being ignored by guards who denied him his medication.

The civil rights lawsuit blames Dade corrections for failures in other cases. It says jailers did not identify that Moffett had contracted MRSA, the potentially fatal antibiotic- resistant infection. It says officers should have checked on Choute's cell more frequently before his suicide.

Choute's wife, Regine Choute, 24, said she had spoken to him 22 minutes before his death.''He said he'd call me back,'' she said. ``It's going to be a year in May, and I still can't believe it.''Ryan, the corrections director, would not discuss specific cases.

The county has not responded to the charges in public court records, but Kubiliun said he expects a motion to dismiss soon.

In February, almost 70 inmates at the county courthouse went on a 36-hour hunger strike complaining of roach-infested food, filthy air ducts and freezing cold. Ryan said the temperature was raised and inmates can wear sweat shirts. He said the food is not roach-infested.


Ryan said he hopes a new facility for ninth-floor inmates will be open by late 2009 -- a state-built forensic hospital at Northwest Seventh Avenue and 22nd Street that is larger, cleaner, and more modern. The county is getting it for $1.The county commission will eventually have to agree to pay for staff the facility, inmate food, utilities, and a new courtroom in the building -- tens of millions in all.The goal, said Ryan, ``is to move [mentally ill] people from a criminal environment, out into the community.''

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