After three days locked in a prison without windows, running water or air conditioning, the women at Lowell Correctional Institution are still waiting for relief.
“It’s a disgusting mess; the women are living in subhuman conditions,’’ said a woman who works at the prison but did not want her name used for fear that she would be fired.
A storm knocked out the prison’s water pump on Saturday, and maintenance crews repaired it late Monday evening, but the water has to be tested for 72 hours to ensure that it is safe to drink before things will be back to normal, said Michelle Glady, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections.
Until then, coolers of water are being dispensed in the dorms, she said.
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But on Tuesday, family and friends of inmates continued to call the prison, local newspapers, the Miami Herald and state lawmakers, complaining that women at the prison were not getting enough to drink, and that the toilets were clogged and overflowing with feces. There were unconfirmed reports that some inmates were falling ill.
Several people who work at the prison said the stench was so bad in the dorms that officers and other staff have not been able to work.
The water pump is just the latest in a long history of sanitary problems at the prison — the largest women’s prison in the country. Dorms are plagued with mold, standing water and even parasites in the water, staff said.
“I don’t understand why the health department doesn’t get involved,’’ said one prison employee. “There’s been a constant problem here with sanitation. Toilets that don’t work — sometimes only one works for 160 inmates.’’
Carmen Hickman told the Ocala Star-Banner Tuesday that her daughter, who is at the prison, said the women were so hot and sweaty from lack of air conditioning they were using standing water from toilets to wash themselves.
The prison does not have air-conditioning, but does have a thermal-cooling system in some dorms which inmates and workers say rarely works, especially in mid-summer.
Hickman said her daughter also said that while a keg of water was being delivered every three hours to her dorm, those who had paid for bottled water were refilling the bottles and there was not enough water for everyone else, the Ocala Star-Banner reported.
As temperatures soared into the high 80s, maintenance crews worked around the clock to restore water Tuesday. The pump that controls the prison’s water and thermal-cooling system broke after it was damaged in a storm Saturday night, according to officials from the state Department of Corrections.
Glady said the agency received no reports of any inmates getting sick as a result of the water problem.
Mara Gambineri, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, said Marion County’s health department was notified by FDC about the incident. However, she said the health department has no “regulatory jurisdiction” over sanitary conditions at the prison — other than the kitchen and food service areas. She offered to provide the Herald with kitchen inspection records.
Lowell has about 2,600 inmates in its compound, located in Ocala, central Florida. The prison has had a history of contagious illnesses.
In the past, state and county health inspections of Lowell have found problems with sanitation, food safety and contagious diseases that have, at times, led to quarantines, which the department calls “movement restrictions.” Parasites have been found in the water, and meat served to the inmates was deemed rancid in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, records show.
In February, another Florida’s women’s prison, Gadsden Correctional Facility in Quincy, forced women to live for months without hot water or heat. They faced flooded bathrooms daily and endured water rations when the septic tanks were jammed with food waste.
After state Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami, demanded action following a series of surprise visits, the private prison operator that runs the facility, about 30 minutes northeast of Tallahassee, received state approval to make the repairs — but the warden didn’t authorize the work.
Finally, the state’s chief inspector general dispatched inspectors to assess the safety and welfare of the inmates and conduct the repairs.
Thus far, there’s no indication the state has assessed the welfare of inmates at Lowell, despite the potential for health-related illnesses.
The prison’s annex has no windows, which means inmates have been locked for hours in their dorms without running water, family members said.
One woman who called the Herald on Monday said her sister was getting sick and wasn’t receiving her blood pressure medication.
Richardson said that he had received a number of calls about dire conditions at Lowell, which was built in 1956 and is the oldest women’s prison in the state.
Like other prisons built by the state, Richardson said in February that Gadsden and other facilities are “now beginning to show their age and present problems associated with older buildings.” He said he has asked the Legislature to fund a full-time staff person to monitor “evolving infrastructure issues.”