Latandra Ellington had weathered some of Lowell Correctional Institution’s harshest and most primitive realities, and was just seven months shy of freedom — and being reunited with her four young children.
But on Sept. 21, Ellington wrote a chilling letter to her aunt telling her she feared she wouldn’t make it out alive. One of the officers at the prison — she identified him as “Sgt. Q” — had threatened to beat and kill her, she wrote.
“He was gone [sic] beat me to death and mess me like a dog,’’ she wrote. “He was all in my face Sqt. Q then he grab his radio and said he was gone bust me in my head with it...’’
Ten days later, on Oct. 1, Ellington, 36, was dead. Corrections officials said Ellington, who had been serving 22 months for grand theft, was in confinement — separated from the general population — at the time of her death because the agency had taken her family’s concerns about the alleged threats “seriously.’’
Still, with no answers about how the death happened, the family hired an attorney and paid for a private autopsy. The autopsy, their lawyer said Monday, showed that Ellington suffered blunt-force trauma to her abdomen consistent with being punched and kicked in the stomach.
On Monday, civil rights attorney Daryl Parks, whose firm represented the Trayvon Martin family and has now been hired by Ellington’s relatives, urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate.
Parks, joined by Florida’s NAACP, told Holder in a letter they were particularly concerned that evidence in the case “will be lost or destroyed’’ and that local and state law enforcement have demonstrated they are unable to conduct an impartial investigation.
“It’s not right that these four children would lose their mom,’’ Parks said. “While the trail is very fresh, we believe a federal investigation is warranted.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed that it was called to the scene of her death and is investigating.
“She was not sentenced to the death sentence and the Department of Corrections certainly owed her far greater protection,’’ Parks said.
Lowell, based in Ocala, was built in 1956, and houses young, elderly and infirm female inmates, from minor drug offenders to the six women currently on Florida’s Death Row.
Department of Corrections records show only one male sergeant at the prison whose name begins with a Q.
The DOC did not respond to questions about whether the sergeant had any links to the case, his current status — or whether anyone had been suspended in connection with Ellington’s death. It issued a statement saying “this is an ongoing investigation, and any additional details, including reports from the medical examiner, are confidential at this time.”
The Herald reached out to the sergeant, but a message left with a woman who answered his phone number was not returned Monday.
Ellington is among nearly 200 ongoing state prison death investigations that have been turned over to the FDLE.
It is the second time this year that civil rights groups have called on the Justice Department to examine alleged human rights abuses in Florida’s prison system.
In June, several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called on Holder to intervene in the death of Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old mentally ill inmate who died in a scalding shower at Dade Correctional Institution in 2012. Witnesses have said that Rainey, and other mentally ill inmates at the prison south of Homestead, have been starved or tortured. His case remains under investigation by Miami-Dade police, and no one has been charged.
Dale Landry, vice president of the Florida conference of the NAACP, called for immediate intervention by the federal government, and said reform of Florida’s correctional facilities has become a top issue of the national organization.
“Death, abuse and official misconduct is rampant in Florida’s criminal justice system and nowhere is it more pervasive than in our law enforcement and correction agencies,’’ he said, noting that his organization has received a stream of complaints from inmates’ families in the past few years.
“For over 14 years, and especially the last four, Floridians have watched this tyranny grow,” he said.
Bill Warner, a private investigator who has probed several cases at Lowell, said the female inmates who are raped or sexually abused by male guards rarely report it out of fear that they won’t be able to see their children. About 65 percent of female inmates are mothers, and the prison also houses a population of pregnant inmates, he said.
“Everyone I talked to — it’s always the same story. There are beat-downs and they are subjected to indignities like males strip-searching them,’’ Warner said.
Ellington’s aunt, Algerine Jennings, said she feared that her niece was being sexually abused or knew about the abuse of other inmates and had complained. Her niece had previously told her she had filed several complaints with other officers at the prison and feared she would face retaliation.
Sgt. Q, she told her aunt, always turned his badge around so that she couldn’t see his name. In one of the letters, she said he took her into a room and repeatedly told her he was going to “beat the sh-- out’’ of her. She also provided the names of other corrections officers who had witnessed violence and mentioned the beating of a “white girl’’ at the prison recently.
“Auntie, no one knows how to spell or say this man’s name,’’ Ellington wrote about the guard in her last letter to her aunt. “But he goes by Sgt. Q and he works the B Shift a.m. So please call up here.’’
After getting the letter, which Ellington sent under an assumed name, Jennings called the prison on Sept. 30, frantic about her niece’s well-being. She said she spoke to a Major Patterson. She said he assured her he would “look after” her niece. She could hear Ellington in the background, so she felt relieved when he said she was safe in confinement.
But less than 24 hours later, the family was told she was dead.
They were given no cause of death and they haven't been contacted since — no questions to indicate the department was investigating her claims, no attempt to reassure them, Parks said.
“This state owes them more than that,” he said. “They get one call from a chaplain saying she’s dead, and nothing.”
Jennings, the aunt, said the sergeant had been terrorizing her, but she was too afraid to tell her why.
“She just said she couldn’t fight them. He told her ‘Do not underestimate my power.’ ’’