Florida Prisons

You do it ‘to survive.’ Ex-inmate at Florida women’s prison tells how staff extorted sex

For Luana Santos, every day at Lowell Correctional Institution was horrific, but her darkest days came when she was put into confinement — unable to speak to another human being for two months, except the orderlies who served her her food.

“When you know you are there because someone was sexually harassing you, and you are punished for it, then that’s a dark day,’’ she said.

For months, officials at the Central Florida women’s prison knew that the assistant warden, Marty Martinez, had been sexually involved with Santos — but it was Santos who often paid the price when the rumor mill became too loud to ignore. It wasn’t Martinez who got into trouble, it was Santos who was put into “lock,” or confinement.

Almost every day, Martinez would visit the wellness center on the prison’s compound, where he would sit and watch the female prisoners, clad in their gym shorts, participate in Zumba classes.

Inmates and officers were all too familiar with the 55-year-old assistant warden’s obsession with young, pretty, petite female prisoners. He had squired so many young women at the prison that he had earned the nickname “Daddy,’’ the Florida Department of Corrections found in a 2015 internal investigation.

But in March 2014, Martinez had a particular obsession with Santos, the probe determined.

After courting her for months, Martinez finally gave Santos an ultimatum, she said in court papers filed last year.

Marty Martinez, a Lowell Correctional assistant warden accused of improper contact with inmates, was fired but not charged with a crime Miami Herald file photo

Either sexually gratify him or she would be placed in confinement and lose whatever gain-time she had accrued. For Santos, who had a young daughter at home, it wasn’t a choice. She was four years into her eight-year sentence for drug dealing and hoped that she would be released early by earning time off for good behavior, known as gain-time.

“It’s hard for people to understand the scare of losing your gain time — that’s 10 extra days a month that you get, so you comply with every order you get just so you can get to your child. I was able to get out of prison a year early because of my gain time. So all I kept thinking was that this was me getting more time in my daughter’s life.,’’ Santos said.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced last week that it is conducting an investigation into sexual violations and other civil rights abuses at Lowell. On Sunday, federal investigators are holding a community meeting, inviting former inmates and their families to speak about their experiences. The meeting will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Marion Baptist Association, 1520 NE 14th St. in Ocala.

The meeting has stirred intense interest among women who were held at Lowell, in Ocala. One woman has prepared a shirt that declares “I survived Lowell.”

Santos’ sexual liaisons with Martinez and other correctional officers at Lowell are detailed in one of a series of federal civil rights lawsuits recently settled by the the Florida Department of Corrections. Over the past few months, four lawsuits filed by Lowell inmates have been settled by the agency for nearly $200,000 in damages. Several others remain pending.

Santos, who was 27 at the time, claimed in her 2017 lawsuit against the agency that Martinez and other corrections officers engaged in a widespread pattern of forced prostitution and sexual misconduct, exploitation and abuse of female inmates at Lowell, the nation’s second-largest women’s prison.

“What everybody needs to know is just open your eyes, they know what’s going on,’’ Santos said. “They just cover it up, like they always do. Be aware that things like this are still going on right now. There’s people inside that place who are suffering. They say ‘well you went along with it’ Well, how can you not go along with it when they have the power over everything? How can you not do it to survive?’’

Martinez, who was fired in 2015 but never charged with a crime, could not be reached for comment.

Santos said the sexual abuse and harassment by officers at Lowell were so pervasive that they were part of the fabric of their daily lives. She still keeps in touch with many of her fellow inmates. While the agency insists they have cleaned up the corruption, Santos and other inmates interviewed by the Herald insist that the abuse remains rampant.

“It’s a normal life. If the male officers don’t abuse you sexually, or abuse you mentally and physically, the females will too, they tell you you are ugly, they say horrible things,’’ Santos said.

Santos described how even a trip outdoors for recreation was terrifying, knowing that Martinez would be around the corner — and that the rest of the staff knew what was happening.

“There were plenty of days, the officers would say, ‘Oh, here comes your boyfriend.’ Everybody knew. I think what was so bad, was that feeling that you get, when you walk from point A to point B, and you just worry that maybe you won’t make it to point B in the compound because some person is going to stop you and say come over.’’

About a dozen officers have been accused in civil suits of forcing inmates to perform sex acts. The sexual misconduct was ignored by the prison’s wardens and by the department, which covered up the abuse by retaliating against inmates who complained, the lawsuits allege.

Women alleged in complaints, filed between 2011 and May 2015, that the sex happens in bathrooms, closets, the laundry and officers’ stations. Sometimes officers go into dorms in the middle of the night, taking women to isolated areas of the prison, the lawsuits assert. The sex was so pervasive at the prison that officers often did it openly, in view of other inmates and staff who would serve as lookouts, the Herald found in a 2015 investigation of corruption at the prison.

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A former inmate’s homemade t-shirt

As part of their investigation, DOJ investigators are soliciting letters from inmates and their families at community.lowell@usdoj.gov, and they plan to visit the prison on Monday to speak to current inmates.

The investigation comes after years of complaints by inmates and activists, who organized in the aftermath of a Miami Herald investigation, “Beyond Punishment.’’ The series included interviews with more than three dozen former and current inmates at Lowell — including Santos — who described being forced to have sex with officers to obtain basic necessities, such as soap, toilet paper and sanitary napkins.

The women described a system of flagrant sexual extortion and other abuses, to both the Herald and in the lawsuits that were later filed against the agency. They said corrections officers illegally smuggled in drugs, tobacco and other contraband, used excessive force against inmates for minor infractions such as talking in the chow hall, and forced women to perform degrading acts, such as exposing themselves.

The inmates who don’t comply with officers’ demands say they are harassed and humiliated; they forfeit plum job and bunk assignments. They are threatened with confinement and they can also lose their belongings, and the privilege of visits from their families.

Julie Jones, secretary for the Department of Corrections, declined to comment for this story. But in 2015, after Martinez was fired, she acknowledged that Lowell was “poorly managed’’ and lacked proper leadership. She said she has made policy changes and that officers are now being held accountable.

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Julie Jones is secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections Miami Herald file photo

But three of the officers accused of misconduct in the civil lawsuits remain employed by the agency, and one of the officers is still at Lowell, FDC officials said this week.

David Frankel, an attorney representing Santos and several other inmates, said he is still getting calls from inmates who claim they have been sexually violated over the past three years.

“There are a couple of girls who are telling me it is still going on but they don’t want to come forward because, for girls in custody, they immediately get put in confinement,’’ Frankel said.

Part of the problem at Lowell is the lack of female corrections officers, and a culture that encourages male officers to take advantage of their power and control over inmates, he said. It is a third-degree felony to have sex with an inmate, but corrections officers are rarely prosecuted in Florida.

Inmates often have no recourse, even when they are released, because the statute of limitations for sexual battery in Florida is four years, which means by the time an inmate serves her sentence and is released, the statute of limitations has often expired.