Video: ‘Beyond Punishment’ - Abuse and neglect in Florida women’s prison
In what’s being called one of the worst prison beatings in memory, four male Florida prison guards attacked an inmate suffering from mental illness, slammed her to a concrete floor, elbowed her in the neck, then dragged her “like a rag doll’’ through the facility, taking her outside, away from cameras, then resuming the assault until she was near death, a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges.
The incident happened Aug. 21 at Lowell Correctional Institution, the largest women’s prison in Florida and the second largest in the nation. The prison, located in Central Florida, south of Orlando, has a long history of human rights violations, some of which are the focus of an ongoing probe by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The latest beating is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. None of the officers had been charged or fired as of Tuesday.
The victim, Cheryl Weimar, 51, is hooked to a breathing tube, receiving food through another tube, and is now a quadriplegic, said her lawyer, Ryan Andrews, who filed the lawsuit on her behalf.
In addition to the lawsuit, Andrews intends to seek an emergency order from a judge to allow him to take photographs of Weimar, who remains in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections, even while hospitalized at Ocala Regional Hospital. FDC has prohibited Andrews or Weimar’s husband from taking photographs of her injuries. Andrews also wants access to the prison video he believes shows what happened.
“It is imperative that the public find out what happened here and that the public have access to the videotapes showing Cheryl beaten to within an inch of her life,’’ Andrews said. “Now a quadriplegic as a result of the beating, Cheryl will never get to walk in her garden and play with her cats, or swim in the ocean, things she once loved, all because she needed help because of her disabilities. What happens behind the walls at Lowell is evil. ’’
Weimar, who had a history of mental illness, also suffered from a hip condition. On Aug. 21, her hip condition flared up, causing her pain, and she complained to the officers that she was unable to clean a toilet. The officers became “angry, aggressive and violent,’’ causing Weimar extreme stress that led her to declare a mental-health emergency, the lawsuit says.
Under prison policy, that should have triggered medical intervention, but the officers instead slammed her to the concrete floor and began beating her, the lawsuit says. One of the officers placed an elbow to the back of her neck, causing her to suffer a broken neck, the suit alleges.
The officers, whose names were not released by the Department of Corrections, then dragged her outside the compound out of the range of cameras and continued to beat her, the suit says.
“She was telling them to please, please help her and so they threw her at a wheelchair to taunt her,’’ Andrews said. “They dragged her around for a while, and really messed her up. They either broke her neck when they slammed her, or what they did after, by dragging her around, caused further trauma to her neck and spine.’’
The suit was also brought by her husband, Karl Weimar, against the four officers, identified as John Does, as well as the state Department of Corrections.
Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said, “We recognize that preliminary reports from this incident are concerning. We’re committed to examining all the details regarding this situation and ensuring appropriate action is taken.”
FDLE is the lead investigative agency, with assistance from the prison agency’s Office of Inspector General.
“They will be conducting a thorough and independent investigation. The officers involved have been reassigned to posts that do not have contact with inmates, pending the outcome of this investigation,’’ Inch said in a statement on Aug. 23.
Weimar was sentenced to six years in prison, entering the system in 2016. Court and police records show she had a long rap sheet, mostly for non-violent crimes, that culminated in her arrest by Hollywood police in February 2015 following a fight in which she slashed her ex-boyfriend with a knife. When police arrived, she resisted arrest by kicking her feet and flailing her arms, leading to an additional charge of resisting arrest with violence.
Her history shows that she has been in and out of trouble since she was young, with arrests ranging from loitering, burglary and theft to prostitution and public drunkenness. At points in her life she was homeless, her records show.
“She basically grew up on the streets, but when she met Karl she gave up that life,’’ Andrews said. “Karl basically saved her life, they had a home and went boating. But she was plagued by her mental and physical disabilities and taken advantage of her whole life.’’
Dignity Florida, a group of formerly incarcerated women and their families, has demanded that the officers be immediately fired.
Michelle Glady, FDC’s spokeswoman, declined to comment on Tuesday.
A series of Miami Herald stories on Lowell in 2015, Beyond Punishment, described cruel conditions, including rats, roaches inadequate healthcare and staffers who force inmates to exchange sex for protection from other officers and to have access to basic necessities, such as sanitary napkins and toilet paper.
Last year, the Justice Department sent a letter to then-Gov. Rick Scott stating that conditions at Lowell were under investigation. That probe, which is ongoing, centered on inmates who had been sexually assaulted by correctional officers. However, former inmates and their families had urged DOJ to expand the investigation to include other misconduct by officers, since the sexual assaults often were tied to physical violence.