This story began in October 2014, with the death of an inmate at Lowell Annex, Latandra Ellington. Ellington, a 36-year-old mother of four serving 22 months for tax fraud, claimed that she had been threatened by a corrections officer she alleged had been having sex with inmates at the prison.
Over the next few months, as the Miami Herald reported on unexplained aspects of the death, former and current inmates and their families — as well as corrections officers and volunteers at the prison —contacted the Herald. They made allegations of widespread corruption, ranging from sexual, physical and mental abuse to the cover-up of criminal activity, such as drug smuggling and prostitution.
To authenticate their stories, the Herald reviewed thousands of pages of Lowell records and, over the course of the past year, interviewed more than 30 Lowell inmates — current prisoners, as well as former ones across the state. The Herald obtained four years’ worth of misconduct reports filed against corrections officers at the prison, personnel files, inmate histories, criminal records and lawsuits, as well as health and safety reports on the prison’s buildings and facilities and audits of Lowell’s medical facilities. The Herald requested and received investigations of former wardens, assistant wardens and other high-ranking officials going back a decade, and examined aspects of the prison’s budget, including spending on education and rehabilitation programs.
Because medical information is federally protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, the department does not release inmates’ medical histories. Some inmates provided the Herald with records they had on hand, while others said they’ve spent months trying to obtain them without success. Often, when they do receive their records, details of what happened to them are omitted, they say.
As part of an ongoing investigation into abuse of inmates and unexplained deaths in the Florida prison system, including some at Lowell, the Herald filed a lawsuit against the corrections department to obtain reports with fewer redactions. The FDC blacks out details of death reports, citing HIPAA, making it impossible for anyone — even the inmates’ next of kin — to know precisely what happened. The Herald also sued to get access to prison video that could shed light on some of the abuse complaints against corrections officers. The department maintains that it is exempt from releasing prison video because doing so would threaten the security of the facility. The lawsuit is pending.
The Herald requested an on-camera interview with Julie Jones, the secretary of the Department of Corrections. Jones was unavailable because of an illness in her family, and her deputy, Ricky Dixon, was also unavailable for an interview, either by phone or in person.
Before the family illness presented itself, the department said Jones would agree to speak to a journalist if questions were provided in advance, which the Herald declined to do because it had not done so with others quoted in the stories. Hoping to forge a compromise, journalists submitted a list of topics to be covered.
Finally, many inmates reached out to reporter Julie Brown through a Facebook page that former Lowell women have organized to keep in touch with one another and offer emotional support. Brown used Facebook and other social media to track down some of the women who, over the past four years, filed complaints with the department about alleged officer misconduct and abuse.
Many of the inmates were initially reluctant to speak on the record about degrading incidents they felt they were forced to endure.
Those who did expressed hope that by sharing their stories, they could help bring positive change to the institution. They also stressed that while their time there was needlessly inhumane, there are a number of officers, staff members and volunteers who made a positive difference in their lives.
The ‘Beyond Punishment’ series
About the series: