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The Witness: The Story & Case Of Inmate Harold Hempstead, Part 2

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) -- He is known to Florida prison authorities as inmate #268866. According to court records, he is a 37-year-old convicted burglar who has served 14 years of a 165 year sentence, which he is currently serving at the Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, Florida.

To some human rights advocates and Florida Department of Corrections observers, he is considered a hero, fearlessly fighting to expose abuses behind bars, particularly against the most vulnerable inmates suffering from mental illnesses. 

Harold Hempstead
Harold Hempstead (Source: Michele Gillen/CBS4)

His name is Harold Hempstead and in a rare television interview he met with CBS4's Chief Investigative Reporter Michele Gillen.

"With this water coming out of the showerhead, it comes out with a lot, a lot of pressure, and it gets all this hot water at the bottom of the shower and it basically makes it,  like it's a cooking shower," says Harold Hempstead, of the shower at the Dade Correctional Institution. "Basically it is boiling whoever is inside the shower."

It is that belief that Hempstead says fuels his nightmares, imagination and mission. He is a Florida inmate who says he has spent the last three years of his life behind bars focused on trying to find out how and why Darren Rainey, an inmate who suffered from mental illness, died. A death, that followed the screams he says he heard of inmate Rainey begging to be let out of a prison shower stall, located just above his cell.

Hempstead wrote a series of letters to CBS4 Chief Investigative Reporter Michele Gillen. He explained that he wanted to share with Gillen details of the night Rainey died and his efforts to expose conditions that he believes are abusive to mentally ill inmates, including Rainey.

Harold Hempstead Mail Michele Gillen
Some of the many letters written by Harold Hempstead to CBS4's Michele Gillen. (Source: Michele Gillen/CBS4)

Charged with 38 counts of burglary, Hempstead is currently serving a sentence of 165 years at the Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, Florida. That is where he met with Gillen this past November.

Gillen asked Hempstead why he, according to some, risked his own life "to keep his name out there, to demand investigations, to demand justice.  Why do you care?"

"Well probably because, I guess God allowed me to witness it," said Hempstead.

To some observers, Hempstead's name is now synonymous with whistle blower in the Florida prison system.

While heralded by many prison reform advocates as a hero, Hempstead has been laser sharp focused on finding answers behind Rainey's death. But Gillen sought to find out more about the inmate who some believe has and is risking his own safety to get to the truth.

"You were how old when you were put into the system?" Gillen asked the now 39-year-old inmate.

"Twenty-three," Hempstead responded as he began to reflect on his life.

Born and raised in St. Petersburg, the youngest of two sons, Hempstead remains extremely close to the woman he considers his biggest supporter and ally today, his older sister, Windy.

She says their father died when Harold was 7 years old, that their mother struggled being on her own, and that as children they were often cared for by relatives or in state care.

"Did you ever think you would end up here?" Gillen asked Hempstead.

"No. I never thought I would end up in prison, but there were a few people who said if you don't shape up you will," he responded.

Hempstead was arrested and ultimately convicted for being the alleged mastermind behind a string of home burglaries in which several homeowner guns were stolen. He insisted he was not a burglar but admitted that he fenced stolen goods. His alleged partner in crime was sentenced to house arrest. Under State Guideline recommendations, the judge could have sentenced him to 65 years in prison but instead sentenced him to 165 years behind bars.

In a Pinellas County court room in 2000, Circuit Judge Brandt Downey III told him, "You are a despicable human being. You do not deserve to ever again walk around as a free person. Hopefully you will die in prison."

"Hundred sixty-five years in this case, what do you think about that sentence?" Gillen asked Randy Berg, the Executive Director of the Florida Justice Institute.

"It's outrageous," reflected Berg who reviewed the CBS4 news investigative reports "The Witness" and discussed the case with Gillen.

"Legislators are talking about smart justice. Well, this is about as un-smart justice as they come," said Berg.

Judge Downey was later forced to retire for repeatedly screening pornography in chambers and infecting the court computer system.

Even though there was no suggestion of impropriety in Hempstead's case, some observers now say, it is a case that deserves a second look.

"Is there an irony there?" asked Gillen.

"There certainly is an irony there. And it certainly makes one think that Harold Hempstead's case needs to be reviewed by someone else at this point in time," said Berg.

Gillen asked Hempstead about the judge's alleged transgressions and fate.

"It was definitely a shock, but I mean nobody was wanting to listen to that. I did raise some stuff in my court filings and they just didn't want to hear it," said Hempstead.

CBS4 News has attempted to reach out to the retired Judge in Hempstead's case for comment but has not been able to locate him. The CBS4 news team will continue the search.

Back in prison, Gillen asked Hempstead about the reality of his sentence.

"Can you come to terms with what your sentence is for your crime?" asked Gillen.

"Well a few years ago I keep stuff going in the court, but I looked upon it as that is you know whatever God wants for me now, I'm willing to accept that," said Hempstead.

But speaking and reaching out from behind bars, he says, is not without danger or threats.

After he reported alleged abuses, he said he was put on protective management – isolated from the general population and transferred from one prison to another. He says as word spread as to who he was, and what he claimed he witnessed, the threats began.

One example he cites happened, he says, at the Reception and Medical Center, the RNC. He says he remembers the welcome one guard gave him.

"Yeah, well I had my throat grabbed at RNC, he threatened to choke me if I didn't stop running my mouth," he reflects.

"Harold is a good person. He cares for other people. That is what I got from him. He cared," said George Mallinckrodt.

He worked as a psychoanalyst at the Dade Correctional Institution where Hempstead was incarcerated and where ultimately Rainey died after Mallinckrodt had left. Mallinckrodt says he was fired after he had tried to expose abuses against mentally ill inmates while working in the system.

"I'm in fear for Harold Hempstead's life and if it were up to me, I would transfer him to a federal facility in Florida. He needs to be out of the DOC. His life is in danger," contends Mallinckrodt.

Hempstead says he currently has no problems with staff the Martin Correctional Institution but the father of two says he would like to return to general population and be moved to a prison closer to his family.

Meanwhile, he says, he is fighting for answers and what he would consider justice in the Rainey death.

"Harold, what would you like to have happen today?" posed Gillen.

"Well I wish they would have filed an indictment or charging information today so I can rest from my constant years of writing letters, like 50 letters a month," he said.

Not justice in the book of Harold Hempstead who appears determined to continue to try and shine light on prison conditions to help protect the most vulnerable incarcerated.

"Harold Hempstead should be given a second chance. I would submit the governor ought to think about pardoning Harold Hempstead for what he has done for the citizens of the state of Florida," said Berg.

CBS4 News reached out to the Florida Department of Corrections requesting an interview or response to the allegations made by Hempstead and to CBS4's findings. The department declined, providing this statement:

"The death of Darren Rainey remains the subject of an open and active investigation being led by the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD). Until the investigation has been completed, any questions regarding the investigation or the circumstances of Mr. Rainey's death should be directed to the MDPD. Since the initiation of this investigation, the Florida Department of Corrections has worked collaboratively with the MDPD, the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office State Attorney's Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and United States Department of Justice. The Department will continue to fully cooperate with our law enforcement partners and employ all available resources to ensure that a thorough investigation is completed as expeditiously as possible."  - Office of Communications/ Florida Department of Corrections

CBS4 News reached out to the Miami-Dade Police Department who said Wednesday their investigation remains open and therefore declined an interview.

CBS4 News has confirmed that the Darren Rainey autopsy report has been made available to the Miami-Dade Police Department.

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