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DOJ To Investigate Florida Prison System

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Hundreds of inmate deaths with questionable circumstances have sparked a potential federal investigation into the state's corrections system.

The U.S. Department of Justice has notified state authorities it will look into potential abuses of inmates after 320 people died behind bars in Florida this year - the highest number of inmate deaths on record.

At the same time, there's been a doubling of incidents involving the use of force by corrections officers.

Amid a growing outcry from prison reform activists, last week Governor Rick Scott last week named a new Department of Corrections Secretary, Julie Jones, to head the department.

Florida has the third-largest prison system in the nation, with 101,000 inmates and a $2.1 billion budget.

"Part of this is economically driven," said Dale Carson, former police officer, prosecuting attorney, FBI agent and Action News Law and Safety Expert. "We have a higher prison population, we don't have the facilities that we would have had 10 years ago, and as a consequence people are pushed on top of one another. It creates stress not only for the inmates themselves, but also for the corrections officers."

A Miami Herald investigation into Florida inmate deaths began with the death of 50-year-old Darren Rainey, a mentally ill inmate at Dade Correctional Institution. Witnesses allege Rainey died after corrections officers locked him in a 180-degree shower as punishment for defecating on the floor of his cell.

Other family members of friends of incarcerated inmates allege in letters to the Herald that officers threatened to harm or even kill inmates if they told anyone about circumstances surrounding suspicious prison deaths.

"It is truly a culture within itself, and not subject to scrutiny from the outside. And as a result when there are witnesses in these cases, they are not likely to come forward, because they fear for their own safety if they are to discuss what they believe happened," says Carson.

Melissa Ross joined WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. During her career as a television and radio news anchor and reporter, Melissa has won four regional Emmys for news and feature reporting.