Florida Politics

Florida state representative calls for investigation into Florida prisons

A state representative is calling for an ethics committee investigation into Florida’s prisons after reports of beatings and abusive behavior from corrections officers.

Susan Valdéz, a Democrat from Tampa, submitted a letter to the chairman of the Public Integrity & Ethics Committee saying that recent reports of attacks at Lowell Correctional Institution and Lake Correctional Institution show a broader problem.

“While the correctional system no doubt exists in part to punish offenders, the reports we are hearing go beyond punishment,” she wrote.

On Aug. 21, four officers at Lowell, the state’s largest women’s prison, slammed inmate Cheryl Weimar to the floor. They then dragged her out of view of cameras and kept beating her, according to a lawsuit on her behalf. Weimar, who has suffered from a history of mental illnesses, is now a quadriplegic.

A sign welcomes inmates to Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Fla. Miami Herald file photo

The Florida Department of Corrections hasn’t released the name of the staffers involved, even to Weimar’s legal team, but said they have been reassigned to have no contact with inmates. Lawyers still fear they can get to Weimar through other officers or that witnesses on the inside are being intimidated.

Lowell is the subject of an ongoing Department of Justice investigation. A 2015 Miami Herald investigation showed how the female inmates at Lowell sometimes have to trade sexual favors to get basic items like toilet paper or tampons from staff.

In July, three officers at Lake Correctional were arrested related to the beating of an inmate. The video was captured on a contraband cellphone and uploaded to YouTube, sparking an investigation. Facebook chats between officers at the prison mocked the inmate as saying “I want more.”

Valdéz said she wants to formally question leaders of the prison system and corrections officers. She also wants members of the Florida House committee to do site checks of prisons and interview the inmates inside.

Rep. Tom Leek, the chairman of the committee, and FDC could not be immediately reached for comment.

“The correctional system should rehabilitate offenders, protect the public, and maximize the value of precious tax dollars we spend on corrections — I fear our current system fails on all fronts,” Valdéz wrote.