Lowell Correctional Institution holds the lion’s share of Florida’s female inmates. With more than 2,700 inmates, it is the largest women’s prison in the United States.
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The prison has an inadequate number of cameras, making it easy for inmates to be abused without consequences for corrections officer who mistreat them.
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In the past decade, amid staff shortages and mismanagement, the abuse has become intolerable, some women say. But the worst, inmates say, is how guards use their positions of power to pressurewomen to have sex. Crystal Harper, a former inmate, said she had sex with guards to avoid confinement, a more restrictice form of incarceration. “Just because you make a bad choice," she said, "it doesn’t mean you’re an animal."
At Lowell as at other Florida prisons, inmates have died under highly suspicious conditions. Family members complain they are given little explanation and investigations are cursory.
On Sept. 14, 2014, Latandra Ellington, a 36-year-old inmate, reported seeing a guard having sex with an inmate. After a confrontation with the officer, she wrote letters to her aunt, saying she feared for her life. Ten days later, Ellington was found dead. The state, based on an autopsy report, said Ellington died of natural causes. But forensic pathologists contacted by the Herald said the autopsy failed to note a potentially lethal level of blood pressure medication in her system.
Since her death, Ellington’s family has sued the state. “I want somebody to pay,” Ellington’s aunt, Algerine Jennings, said.
Inmates also claim – and recent departmental inspections confirm – prison healthcare is seriously substandard. In 2008, Tanya Yelvington, who was 48 at the time, found a lump on her breast. The Department of Corrections told her not to worry despite her family history with breast cancer. Fourteen months later, the tumor doubled in size and the cancer, now at stage 2, spread to her lymph nodes. Doctors performed a double mastectomy, which left Yelvington mutilated and with an infection that, she says, nearly killed her.
Prison officials deny conditions are anywhere near as dire as inmates claim. In an interview with the Herald, Angela Gordon, Lowell’s new warden, said the prison has improved.
“Do we have bad apples? I’m sure we do,” she said. “Every organization does, but we’re stressing it’s not something we’re going to tolerate.”
Despite the claims of improvement, some inmates say Lowell remains needlessly cruel and inhumane and they are skeptical that change is forthcoming.
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