In a historic culmination to decades of “horrific” living conditions and a pattern of constitutional violations, the Miami-Dade County Jail in Florida has finally closed the “Forgotten Floor” – the notorious ninth floor at the facility that was used to house mentally ill prisoners, often for months and years at a time, with levels of care so abysmal that prisoners routinely died.
“It is thrilling on one level but kind of sad that it has taken so long,” said Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman of the December 23, 2014 closure of the jail’s ninth floor. “A lot of people have been hurt or died up there.” Leifman, as chair of the 11th Circuit Mental Health Project, has been a long-time advocate for the mentally ill.
In 2013 alone, three mentally ill prisoners housed on the ninth floor died. On August 26, Joseph Wilner, 59, was found “unresponsive” in his cell; jailed for driving on a suspended license, he was in the unit reserved for the most acute mental cases.
In July 2013, Leifman was informed of the death of wheelchair-bound prisoner Joaquin Cairo. An employee with the jail’s diversion program told the court that Cairo said “someone propositioned him while in custody and when [he] declined they threw him against the bed and against the floor.” Cairo suffered a broken pelvis and died from internal bleeding.
“The neglect was despicable. Despicable,” Leifman said. “He should have been taken to a hospital immediately, and there is absolutely no excuse.”
Three months earlier another psych ward patient, Juan Matos-Flores, who was considered a suicide risk, died after jailers found him unresponsive on the floor of his cell. When staff tried to call 911 they were unable to do so because the phones on the ninth floor were programmed to block outgoing calls. Instead, employees were forced to call another floor to get help.
“It’s a floor that is specifically designed for people who are ill. It’s absurd,” Leifman said after learning of the telephone debacle.
When the ninth floor at the Miami-Dade County Jail closed, some 400 prisoners were transferred to six newly-refurbished wings at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, where the telephones allow 911 calls and cameras monitor prisoners in every cell.
The Miami-Dade County Jail, the nation’s eighth-largest, has been under federal monitoring since the U.S. Department of Justice concluded a three-year investigation in 2011 that found a “pattern and practice in constitutional violations” of prisoners’ rights due to deplorable living conditions.
Leifman was more blunt, calling conditions on the Forgotten Floor “horrific.”
“It was not built to be a psychiatric facility. It was built as a jail [with a cell] for one person, and here two and three people [were placed] in there that are very psychotic,” he said.
The public got its first glimpse of the infamous floor in 2006 when Leifman invited a television reporter and camera crew to document conditions as he guided a tour. “Human beings should not be treated like this. No blankets, no beds, no mattresses. We sleep on the floor,” one prisoner told CBS4 chief investigative reporter Michele Gillen, who found the faucets in cells were not working and prisoners were drinking water from the toilets. Leifman credited Gillen’s reporting with stirring public outrage which, in turn, prompted action.
“We have finally closed the ninth floor, thanks to you,” Leifman told Gillen in an interview. “I don’t think the public ever would have understood how horrendous the situation was, but for your reporting. And it led to where we are today.”