Latandra Ellington, an inmate at Lowell state prison, died amid a power struggle between two warring factions of corrections officers, according to letters obtained by the Miami Herald.
The latest details about Ellington’s death on Oct. 1 emerged Saturday following another death at the all-women’s prison near Ocala. Michelle Tierney, 48, died Thursday after she was transported from the Lowell Correctional Institution to Ocala Regional Medical Center the day before, her family told the Herald.
The problems at Lowell are the latest crisis for the Florida Department of Corrections, which has faced mounting criticism and investigative scrutiny over a rash of unexplained deaths throughout the prison system.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed Saturday that it is investigating Tierney’s death, as it is Ellington’s. Tierney’s family, as well as sources at the prison, said that Tierney had been seriously ill for some time, and that doctors at the hospital told her family that at the time she arrived at the hospital her feet were blue, she was in septic shock, she had a fever and was suffering from pneumonia.
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She died early Thursday morning. After serving 14 years, Tierney had been scheduled to go home around the start of the new year.
Tierney is the fourth in-custody death this year at Lowell, which was built in 1956. FDLE is investigating all four deaths.
Ellington, 48, was found dead in a confinement cell on Oct. 1, just days after she wrote her family telling them that a sergeant at the prison had threatened to beat and kill her.
Three inmate letters, which were given to a Herald reporter by sources who work at the prison, were written by prisoners who did not sign their names because they believe they would be beaten or killed if they told anyone what they know about what happened to Ellington, an inmate known as “Tan.’’
The inmates say that guards have threatened Ellington’s cellmate, telling her that if she opens her mouth “the same thing that happened to Tan would happen to her.’’
“Our families think that we come here and we’re safe, but that’s not true,’’ wrote one inmate, who has been at Lowell for about a decade. “I’ve seen lots of injustices but no one cares, and as a means of survival, you learn to turn your head and stay silent in order to stay alive.’’
The inmates asserted that women are routinely beaten by guards for sport, that they suspect that many of the “suicides’’ at the prison were really killings covered up, and that male guards sexually abuse inmates.
Two of the letters are very detailed, providing the last names of guards, the “cliques’’ they belong to and how they use inmates as “pawns’’ in their power struggle to control the prison.
“It was almost like a gang,’’ wrote one inmate.
Ellington, in the letter to her family, said that “Sgt. Q’’ — she did not know his name — had threatened to beat and kill her. She said she reported the threats to prison officials. Her family also called the prison, distraught about her safety.
Sgt. Q, later identified as Patrick Quercioli by the union representing prison guards, was scheduled to be questioned last week by FDLE.
The inmates, however, said that Quercioli was set up by another officer, who had urged Ellington to complain about Quercioli’s threats. It was that officer, the inmates said, who escorted Ellington to confinement the day she died.
In the letters, they urge Ellington’s family to check video surveillance cameras in several areas of the prison to see if he may have been the last person to see her alive. The prison system has opposed letting outsiders — including the Herald — view surveillance video, calling such viewings a security breach.
The union said Quercioli was on vacation when Ellington died.
Last week, Ellington’s family hired prominent civil rights attorney Daryl Parks to represent them, and paid for a private autopsy. Parks said the autopsy showed that Ellington had signs of blunt-force trauma to her abdomen consistent with being beaten.
He and the Florida NAACP wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to investigate the death, suspecting that prison officials are covering up what happened.
“I continue to have concerns about how we treat inmates in the Department of Corrections. The problem cries out for help on a monumental level,’’ Park said Saturday.
The Herald was unsuccessful in reaching a Department of Corrections spokesperson Saturday.
An FDLE spokeswoman, however, confirmed Friday night that it was investigating another death that happened Thursday. Tierney, who had served 14 years for embezzlement, was to be transferred from Lowell on Oct. 30 to another prison, from which she was scheduled to be released in January.
Her son, Ryan Tierney, said she had been mostly healthy during her time at the prison. He said he spoke to her a few months ago and said she was in good spirits and looking forward to getting out and seeing her two sons and her daughter, who are now in their early 20s. They were raised by their maternal grandparents.
“I’m more angry than anything,’’ her son said. “Apparently she had cysts everywhere in her body, pneumonia and septic shock. I don’t know how any competent medical professional would have let that go.’’
A nurse at the prison, who did not want to be identified for fear of losing her job, said that Corizon Health, the private health care company contracted by the state to run the prison’s medical services, makes it difficult to adequately treat the inmates.
“You have to be on a deathbed before you can be sent to the emergency room because Corizon Health doesn’t want to pay for it,’’ the nurse said.
“The prison is mostly staffed by LPNs (Licensed Practical Nurses) making life-and-death decisions,’’ she said.
Early last month, the Herald requested a year’s worth of performance reviews for Corizon Health from the Department of Corrections. The company has been sued hundreds of times in states where it provides prison healthcare. The department delayed responding to the request for nearly a month, then issued a news release in which DOC Secretary Mike Crews threatened to withhold payments to Corizon Health if its performance didn’t improve.
Three days later, the department provided the public records the Herald was seeking. The records show Corizon Health failing to meet contract standards at virtually every prison it serves.
Susan Morgenstern, a spokeswoman for Corizon Health, said her company could not discuss individual patients due to privacy regulations, but she said “clinical decisions are made based on each patient’s unique history, physical and/or psychological assessment findings.”
“Accusations that we make clinical decisions based on financial factors are simply not true,” she said in a statement to the Herald.
Tierney’s best friend, an inmate who was released last year, said the last letter she received from Tierney was about a week ago. In it, she complained that she was suffering from so much pain in her legs that she couldn’t walk and was crying constantly. She was going day and night to the infirmary, but was always sent back to the dorm by the nurses, who told her that it was simply arthritis in her legs.
The friend, who would allow the newspaper to use only her first name, Sheri, said the prison is so underfunded that it often doesn’t have sanitary napkins in stock.
“You have to go ask the male guards for a pad,’’ which is humiliating, she said. “One time an officer told me he didn’t have any, and I said ‘what am I supposed to do?’ and he said, ‘use one of your socks.’ ’’
Tierney worked as a teacher in the prison, helping other inmates learn how to better read and write.
“If it wasn’t for her I would have had a hard time there,” said Sheri. “She was book-smart, street-smart and educated. She had plans on coming home.’’
Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.
IN-CUSTODY DEATHS AT LOWELL
Built in 1956, the Lowell Correctional Institution is Florida’s oldest prison for women. It has had a series of suspicious deaths since April. Michelle Tierney is the fourth in-custody death this year.
- April 30: Affricka G. Jean, 30. FDLE, with assistance from the Office of Inspector General, classified her case as an “active death investigation.”
- August 22: Regina A. Cooper, 50. FDLE, with assistance from the Office of Inspector General, classified her case as an “active death investigation.”
- October 1: Latandra Ellington, 48, was found dead in a confinement cell just days after she wrote her family telling them that a sergeant at the prison had threatened to beat and kill her.
- October 9: Michelle Tierney, 48, dies after being ill for some time.