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Federal judge, citing inmate suicide, grills Miami-Dade officials on mental health center

Miami Herald - 6/12/2024

With a bed sheet attached to a smoke detector, a 47-year-old man who’d been arrested on a misdemeanor battery charge committed suicide last November in a Miami-Dade County jail. He hadn’t even been in the jail 24 hours.

This week, a federal judge who learned of the suicide hauled county officials — including Mayor Daniella Levine Cava — into court to find out why a mental health facility that would help keep people with mental health problems out of the county jails still isn’t open.

At the Tuesday hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Beth Bloom wondered aloud whether the jail inmate, identified in court as D.L., would still be alive if the center were open and operating. She said the county claimed that the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery, a seven-story tower near west Wynwood, would be fully funded and operational in early 2024. She’d toured it just four days before D.L. killed himself.

She wasn’t satisfied with the answer she got Tuesday from Levine Cava: It’s expected to open this year, but no one can say for sure.

“I’m frustrated,” the judge said. “I’m seeing that we can do a much better job here in Miami-Dade County.”

Questions about federal report

The county’s jail system has been under federal judicial oversight for years because of a dark history of mistreating inmates, especially those with mental illness. U.S. Department of Justice officials who monitor the county jails gave Bloom a positive report in May, suggesting the federal oversight could soon end.

But Bloom couldn’t reconcile the glowing report with the fact that another suicide had occurred, and that it had prompted yet more changes in the jail.

“I don’t want to be here in the future with another suicide,” she said. “It seems it’s a Band-Aid approach and I don’t want to be part of it.”

Bloom said the long-planned mental health facility, though not specifically required under the county-federal consent agreement, is “an answer” to the problems.

Repeatedly given murky responses without firm dates, Bloom had to keep asking: “It needs to be open. When is it going to open?” “What’s the holdup? I’m not understanding.” “What needs to be done?” “What’s holding up opening this facility?” “What more needs to take place?” “I’d like to see if I can understand when this facility will be open.” “The question I certainly have is when is this facility going to be open?” “When do you believe this facility will be open?” “What can this court do to move this along?”

Levine Cava said she might “not have been as clear as I could be” about how complex the project is, but she said she still anticipates an opening by year’s end, though she “cannot guarantee” it. And if it does open in 2024 as planned, she said it would be with “some programming” but not a full use of the 208 beds the center at 2200 NW Seventh Ave. is designed for.

Bloom set another hearing for Oct. 25 at 3 p.m. to get an update. By then, the county will have passed a new budget and should be nearing an opening date. Federal civil rights officials also will have re-visited the county jails to check again for compliance with the 2013 consent decree.

The center was proposed years ago by county criminal court Judge Steve Leifman, who took Bloom and others on the tour last November. The idea, which he voiced again in court on Tuesday, is that potential arrestees would be diverted into the center to turn their lives around, instead of revolving in and out of the county jails. He believes the center could make a dent in the homeless population, as well, helping troubled people with serious mental illnesses get back on their feet.

“It’s taken a long time to get to this point,” he said in the Tuesday hearing, advising that “leadership” is what’s needed to get it open.

What’s left to do

The building’s $51 million-plus renovation is nearly complete, but Levine Cava told the judge that the facility still needs a kitchen, and furniture. And an operator, and an operating plan. And the County Commission must vote on a budget, and to award a contract to an operator.

County Commissioner Raquel Regalado has agreed to sponsor the county legislation, she said.

Levine Cava pointed out that even without the center open, the county has been deemed by federal civil rights officials to be “in substantial compliance” with a consent decree on improving care for inmates with mental illness.

“I’m proud of the progress we made, and regret any loss of life or serious injury,” she said.

The most recent suicide caught Bloom’s attention. In a June 3 order to show cause, she demanded county officials appear in her courtroom to explain why the center isn’t open, and what they’re doing “to prevent additional suicides and to appropriately address the treatment of persons with mental health conditions. “

Bloom slowly read the timeline of inmate D.L. The county medical examiner’s office told the Miami Herald that the inmate’s name is Daniesqui Lache Rodriguez. He had a history of alcohol abuse and “appeared intoxicated.” But he told staff at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center he wasn’t contemplating suicide and had never tried killing himself before.

He appeared anxious, with “family problems, financial problems, and housing problems,” a report to the court says. He was placed in a detox unit.

After his court appearance the next day, he told the nurse that court “did not go well and his stomach was hurting,” the report recounts. The nurse offered him Tums and breathing exercises, a half hour of observation and offered to contact a therapist for him. He told her he was “not crazy” and declined her offers.

Less than four hours later, he was found hanging from his bed sheet in his cell.

His suicide was one of two in the Miami-Dade County Jails in 2023, a jails spokesman said. The prior year, five inmates committed suicide. There’ve been no jail suicides this year, spokesman Juan Diasgranados said.

Bloom said the earlier 2023 suicide involved an inmate on work release who went into a bathroom, took off his pants and hanged himself with the clothing, while under the control of Miami-Dade’s corrections department.

He’d gotten some bad news that no one realized, Bloom said she was told. But in this case, the inmate told jail personnel he felt he’d had a bad morning in court.

Leifman told Judge Bloom in the Tuesday hearing that Rodriguez might not have met criteria for the proposed mental health facility. But, he said, when the center opens and reduces the county jail population, jail employees will be able to do their jobs better — a scenario that could help an inmate like him.

Though the county reviewed Rodriguez’s suicide and found it unpreventable, some changes were made, a report to the federal court says: Inmates with risk factors will be seen by a mental health professional right after their court appearances, even if they decline help, and they won’t be immediately placed in a cell. Cameras were installed in the detox housing, and bedding in that unit is now “suicide safe.” An extra window was added to the doors in the cells in the detox unit.

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