Video: ‘Beyond Punishment’ - Abuse and neglect in Florida women’s prison
Advocacy groups are organizing a protest at Florida’s largest women’s prison, Lowell Correctional Institution, Saturday morning in the wake of a violent assault, allegedly by a correctional lieutenant, that gravely injured a 51-year-old inmate, sources have told the Miami Herald.
The inmate, identified by sources as Cheryl A. Weimar, had suffered from both mental and physical disabilities and was having health difficulties when the officer allegedly slammed her to the ground and dragged her out of the prison on Wednesday.
Neither the Florida Department of Corrections nor the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is investigating, has confirmed the name of the inmate or provided her condition. But several sources told the Herald that the inmate’s neck was broken in the attack.
Debra Bennett, a former inmate who now runs a Florida inmate advocacy group, “Soldiers on the Inside, a Force on the Outside,’’ said she intended to drive three hours on Saturday to protest outside Lowell.
“Beatings, draggings, killings, when is it going to stop?’’ said Bennett, who communicates with dozens of inmates at the prison, located in Ocala, Marion County.
Since Wednesday’s incident, Bennett said she’s received emails from inmates providing her with power of attorney in the event that something happens to them because they are so afraid. Some of those who’ve reached out to her include lifers and other inmates who have been at Lowell so long that they are usually able to cope with reports of violence. But not this time, she said.
“Here’s the way it works: When there is a death or a beating that everybody with a working mind knows isn’t supposed to happen, you feel it. Everyone is feeling this incident, it’s a silent tension that doesn’t leave you. You are suspicious and you are afraid and you are on alert. All these inmates are scared. They are all afraid to talk,’’ Bennett said.
Lowell’s history of violence is well documented, and the reports from family members of inmates coming out of the prison were sufficiently disturbing that Sen. Keith Perry, a Republican who chairs the upper chamber’s Criminal Justice Committee, was heading to the prison Friday to learn about what had occurred.
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 the DOJ to expand the investigation to include other misconduct by officers, since the sexual assaults often were tied to physical violence.
Weimar, a native of Broward County who was serving a sentence on a domestic assault charge, became involved in a confrontation with corrections officers as she sought to declare a psychological emergency, sources said. Under proper prison procedure, that would have led to a medical intervention. Instead, sources said, she was slammed to the ground, then dragged to a wheelchair, with her head bouncing along the ground, before ending up hospitalized in intensive care with what was described as a possible broken neck.
Sources told the Herald that she had a hip condition and the officer became angry with her when she was unable to clean a toilet.
The Florida Department of Corrections would say nothing about how the incident occurred, when, to whom and why — only that “the preliminary reports of this incident are concerning.”
“We’re committed to examining all the details regarding this situation and ensuring appropriate action is taken,” said a statement attributed to Mark Inch, appointed to run the nation’s third-largest state prison system by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is leading the investigation rather than the prison system’s internal police force, the inspector general’s office, likely an indication of the gravity of what occurred.
Like the Department of Corrections, FDLE would say little.
“FDLE is investigating a use of force at Lowell Correctional Institution,” said a statement from agency spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. “Department of Corrections contacted us yesterday and requested the investigation. Our case is active and in the early stages.”
The officers involved were not immediately suspended, but rather “have been reassigned to posts that do not have contact with inmates, pending the outcome of this investigation” FDC said.
The department said there would be no additional information released until the incident could be investigated.
The Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching anyone from the state attorney’s office that has jurisdiction over the prison.
Because the department of corrections often keeps even life-threatening injuries secret — even from an inmate’s closest relatives — information gets to the outside via inmate phone calls and other unofficial communications. That information is then disseminated through message boards and word of mouth.
That’s especially true at Lowell, which has an active Facebook community where relatives and friends share support, encouragement and concerns.
The Miami Herald was unsuccessful in reaching a member of Weimar’s family. She is due to be released in February 2021 after serving a six-year sentence for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Her arrest reports indicate that in 2014 and 2015, she had a dispute with her then-boyfriend, who had been trying to evict her from his apartment. During one of the incidents, she pulled out a steak knife and stabbed him in the hand, the report said. When Hollywood police arrived, she resisted arrest and began kicking the officers, leading to a second count of resisting officers with violence.
Distant family members told the Herald that she has mental health problems.
Perry, whose district includes Lowell and who frequently hears from inmates and their families about problems at the compound, said he has been told there is no surveillance footage of the incident despite legislative bills advanced by his committee to putting additional money in the budget for surveillance cameras for the protection of both staff and inmates.
“I heard she had a pretty significant neck injury,” he said of the inmate.
In the Florida system, veteran staffers are aware of blind spots in the surveillance cameras and can take advantage of them to administer beatings.
Bennett said she heard the inmate was dragged outside the compound into an area not covered by cameras.
Another activist, Kim Lawrence, said she had heard that the inmate’s injuries were life threatening.
“Now we are just waiting,’’ said Lawrence, whose daughter served time in Lowell and is now at the neighboring Florida Women’s Reception Center. “We want to know if she’s confirmed deceased, and if not, is she in the hospital, where is she? We just want to hear whether there have been arrests, so we are waiting.”
Casey Frank and Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.