Florida Politics

If a Florida inmate is gravely ill or brutally beaten, are kin promptly informed? Not always

Her son lost so much blood he passed out. His body started to shut down. He was rushed into the hospital. It was, just as his file noted, acute ulcerative colitis, which left him vulnerable and sickly.

But Amanda Thiedt wouldn’t know about her son, an inmate with the Florida Department of Corrections whose name she is withholding for fear of retaliation, for three days. She found out only because she called the prison and started asking questions.

Nobody ever tried contacting her, she said.

“This is still my child,” said Thiedt, 51. “I still have a right to know.”

Family members of state inmates say that the Florida Department of Corrections doesn’t always contact them when their loved ones are injured and hospitalized — even if the injuries are the result of a beating by staff.

Instead, they find out through the grapevine, from other inmates who pass along the news, or when they take it upon themselves to call and ask. One man found out from a news report that his wife had been beaten and left paralyzed from the neck down, he claimed in a lawsuit. Sometimes weeks go by until an incarcerated family member can write or call to say what happened.

Thiedt called her son’s prison only because she thought it was unusual that so many days had gone by without him calling her. Prison personnel would tell her only that he was taken to the hospital. When Thiedt asked why she hadn’t been called, she was told family members are told only if an inmate is in intensive care and it is likely he or she won’t live.

“A lot of families don’t keep that close in contact, unfortunately,” Thiedt said. “So they are able to use that as a way to cover up issues a lot. It should be complete transparency. If they have nothing to hide, they shouldn’t be hiding.”

Michelle Glady, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, said in the case of death, Florida Administrative Code says that the prison chaplain will immediately alert the person designated to be notified.

She said the policy doesn’t specify what to do in the case of serious injury, but that in many instances next of kin will be notified. Sometimes contact information is out of date in prison files, she said, or people can’t be reached.

“The intent of staff is always to make contact,” she said.

Shauna Reyman Florida Department of Corrections

An additional problem, she said, is that some inmates choose not to have information shared with family. Medical records are confidential under federal privacy laws. Just because an inmate is taken to an outside hospital doesn’t mean next of kin will be notified, she said.

Family members have had to go to court to access the medical records of loved ones who died under suspicious conditions in the prison system.

The parents of Shauna Reyman, a woman at Lowell Correctional Institution, who died on Sept. 6 from a suspected overdose, said they found out that their daughter was brain dead four days after she collapsed onto the prison floor.

They learned the news about their 32-year-old daughter from a doctor at the hospital, who called to ask if the warden had ever gotten ahold of them.

Reyman’s mom said she had missed a restricted call, and one from the chaplain, but that nobody picked up when she repeatedly tried to call back.

Some lawyers and family members blame callousness and ineptitude rather than bureaucratic obstacles and privacy laws.

In a recent case at Lowell, Karl Weimar found out only by reading the news that his 50-year-old wife, Cheryl Weimar, was paralyzed from the neck down, according to an ongoing lawsuit. On Aug. 21, Cheryl Weimar was beaten by four guards, dragged out of view of cameras, and beaten again, the lawsuit states.

FDC said the statement that he only found out from the news is untrue, according to a court pleading. The Lowell chaplain tried to reach Cheryl Weimar’s emergency contacts and left voice messages on Aug. 23. In her file, Karl Weimar’s information was included and she identified him as her ex-husband, according to the motion.

Ryan Andrews, the lawyer representing Weimar, said FDC’s failure to reach the family is especially egregious because Karl Weimar is on probation.

“They know exactly where he lives, to the door, and they still didn’t call him,” he said.

It’s not the only time a family member has found out about a loved one from the news. In February 2015, Shurick Lewis, an inmate at Columbia Correctional, was beaten and kicked by prison staff, then left for the next shift to deal with. He ended up in the hospital. His mother, 63-year-old Carolyn Dawson, learned about the incident weeks later from a reporter writing about prison brutality. She was never told about her son’s condition even though the FDC had published a news release — not naming the victim but saying the incident was under investigation.

The prison system spokesman at the time, McKinley Lewis, said the FDC was reviewing its procedures.

Shurick Lewis Florida Department of Corrections

Inmates sometimes take it upon themselves to give friends on the inside numbers for their family in case anything happens. When a 55-year-old man at a Panhandle prison, whose name is being withheld because of the family’s fear of retaliation, bled profusely and had to be taken to the hospital ICU, where he was transfused with seven units of blood, his wife of decades found out from another inmate who passed the news along. A second time when her husband was sent to the hospital, she found out the same way.

She was able to get some information from the hospital staff, but said that’s because they were able to speak “nurse to nurse.”

“If I wasn’t a medical person, I don’t know where he would be right now, honestly,” she said.

In January, a mother whose son was stabbed five times, including in the temple, at Hamilton Correctional Institution wasn’t told her son had been attacked. Instead, her other son, listed on the emergency contact sheet, got a call not to come to visitation because his brother was in administrative confinement, she said.

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Cheryl Weimar, before she was sent to Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution, where she endured a near-fatal beating by staff.

The next week, the mother got a call from the prison saying not to come visit. She knew something was wrong.

Then she checked her mail. She got a letter from her son, saying he had been attacked by gang members in the prison after they saw him witness a beating. He flatlined twice on the way to the hospital, he told her. She never knew.

When she asked a classification officer what would have happened if things had gone wrong, the woman said she was told “you would have got a call if he died.”