MIAMI (CBSMiami) – For decades, mentally ill inmates in Miami-Dade county’s jail have lived like, as one critic put it, “animals in cages.”
The disturbed prisoners are warehoused, receiving no treatment, often abused. Sometimes abused to death.
But that horror story may be about to enter a new, and vastly improved chapter, the latest chapter in a nearly ten-year long series of reports by CBS4 News titled, “The Forgotten Floor.”
CBS4 reports have documented conditions at the jail, where inmates have been warehoused on steel beds, locked down in cells with concrete floors, many often cowering naked.
“We have a horrible jail that was built over fifty years ago that is a hell hole,” Judge Steven Leifman said Friday.
Leifman has been relentless in his efforts to shut down the “Forgotten Floor” and break the cycle of the mentally ill being constantly arrested and re-arrested and housed with no treatment in a place where they often hurt themselves or others.
“We don’t treat animals this way. We shouldn’t treat people this way,” Leifman told CBS4 News in an interview several years ago.
Among the tragedies on the “Forgotten Floor” was that of William Weaver. He threw himself from his upper steel bunk, broke his neck against the cell toilet, was left paralyzed from the neck down and later died from complications.
In a visit to the “Forgotten Floor” last year, CBS4 News met Joaquin Cairo who had been arrested on a petty charge and was in a wheel chair, after being beaten by a fellow crazed inmate. He died days later.
Judge Leifman took CBS4 News on a tour Friday of an abandoned, seven story former state mental hospital in Northwest Miami that the county has fast-tracked to replace the “Forgotten Floor.”
“It will be state of the art,” Leifman said, as he walked through the building, vacant and neglected since the state closed it in 2008, outsourcing the services that were provided there to private enterprise.
The facility is scheduled to undergo a $22 million renovation, using bonds previously approved by Miami-Dade voters. It will be a one-stop full service facility for disturbed inmates. Patients will receive treatment and more.
“Once we’ve dealt with their mental illness, they’re stable, they’re back in recovery, it’s real important to get people jobs who have mental illness,” Leifman said.
The facility will be job training, meant to get the mentally ill working, off the streets and out of trouble.
Leifman said research shows that mentally ill people who are employed are much less likely to be homeless and re-offend. The vast majority of mentally ill who are arrested are homeless and have committed petty offenses.
The new facility will be renovated to have a calming, rather than the traumatizing environment where inmates are currently housed. There will be leisure and recreation areas, classrooms for teaching, a library, on-site medical treatment and living quarters with a desk, closet and comfortable bed – more like a bedroom than a jail cell.
The “Forgotten Floor” now costs county taxpayers some $80 million dollars a year to operate. The new treatment center, while offering so much more in care, will cost a fraction of the current operating expenses.
“We have state and federal dollars. It’s gonna [sic] save the county a ton of money,” Leifman said, explaining that Medicaid and other programs will pick up much of the tab now born by local taxpayers.
Leifman credited the coverage of CBS4 for helping bring expected dramatic change to how Miami-Dade deals with mentally ill inmates.
“CBS4’S ‘Forgotten Floor’ is one of the main reasons we’re getting this building open,” he said.
He also had praise for county commissioners, including Sally Heyman, who sponsored the effort to make the new treatment center a reality, and lauded Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez for supporting the plan.
As for the rent, the lease on the sprawling building?
“The state has agreed to lease it to the county for one dollar a year for 99 years,” Leifman explained. “I will gladly pay the rent every year.”
The apparent end of the “Forgotten Floor” is owed primarily to Leifman, who has made it his mission.
“It’s been more than ten years,” he said. “I can’t believe it’s finally here. Mostly it’s rewarding because we’ll be able to see people turn their lives around again, see them have jobs, be happy, have hopes, have dreams, just like everybody else.”
Miami-Dade Commissioners will take a final vote on the new facility for disturbed inmates next week. It would seem likely to pass, given that it will save the county money, not to mention save lives.