State Rep. Dianne Hart talks about conditions at Lowell Correctional Institution
In a video posted on Facebook, State Rep. Dianne Hart excoriated excessive heat, excessively short eating times, inadequate female hygiene materials and inmate treatment after spending Sunday at Lowell Correctional Institution, days after an inmate was brutally manhandled, leaving her gravely hurt.
Hart’s been at Lowell several times before, but this is the first time since Wednesday’s incident involving alleged use of excessive force by a corrections officers against Cheryl Weimar. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Florida Department of Corrections Office of the Inspector General are investigating what inmates described to Hart as an attack on the 5-10, 118-pound 51-year-old from Hollywood.
“We came here today because I wanted to talk to some of the inmates about the young lady that was slammed here at the work camp,” Hart said on the video. “I understand, yes, her neck may very well be broken. I have not been able to get that verified by the FDLE, but I can tell you what the inmates told me:
“Four people, four men were dragging her around like a rag doll. They threw her down. Somebody hit her neck with their elbow. That’s what the inmates say. I cannot prove it. So, I have no proof of that. I can only tell you what many of the people who say they were there when some of this occurred...
“I cannot verify it for you until FDLE tells me exactly what happened — and I understand that’ll happen when it’s all done, when the investigation is over.
“But, come on officers, stop with the physical abuse.”
The Florida Department of Corrections emailed the Miami Herald Tuesday to address many of Hart’s points.
As for the Weimar incident, the FDC says during the investigation the officers involved have been reassigned to positions that don’t include inmate interaction.
“While the investigation is active and ongoing, releasable information related to this incident is very limited,” the FDC said. “When the investigation is complete, the report will be made available to the public.”
Corrections Secretary Mark Inch 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.”
In a Monday phone conversation with the Miami Herald, Hart said she didn’t see Weimar because “I was told she was not there, that she was at an outside hospital.”
Other elements of Lowell life that left Hart feeling “a little dismayed and disappointed” were:
Poor medical care — Hart told the Herald she saw the foot of a woman with three amputated toes who hadn’t received proper medical treatment. Hart said she hasn’t heard anyone in any of the state’s 29 facilities have anything good to say about the prison system’s medical care, which, she said, is provided by Centurion.
FDC email: “FDC has a constitutional mandate to provide health care for all inmates incarcerated in Florida’s prisons. The Department is committed to ensuring inmates receive medical and mental health care that is in line with the appropriate standards of care.”
Heat — Hart described “walking around in cells, pouring in sweat” and fans that didn’t work in certain areas. And she was particularly peeved at an officer who, she was told, would turn off the fans in an area as punishment. “It’s already 99,000 degrees in there and you turn off fans? Come on.”
The FDC claims that all its institutions comply with national standards for heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
“The Department has air-conditioned housing units which serve the most vulnerable inmate populations such as the infirm, mentally ill, and geriatric,” the FDC email said. “Housing units that are not air-conditioned incorporate a high level of air exchange provided by large exhaust fans, which are inspected weekly to ensure proper operation. These housing units also incorporate additional fans such as ceiling or wall-mounted circulation fans.”
Soap rationing — Hart described the soap that’s supposed to last inmates for a week as “like the little small bar you get out of a hotel” that would last three or four showers. She said an assistant warden claimed he didn’t know of this practice and told staff to give women the soap as needed.
Female hygiene — One of the sponsors of the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act that was signed into law in June noted “Yes, we now have tampons, however, we don’t have real pads. We have panty liners. Those women who know what it’s like to have a menstrual cycle that is extremely heavy, you know that having panty liners does not work.”
Time to eat — Hart said that instead of the 10 to 20 minutes of meal time as mandated by Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch, inmates were getting three to five minutes. Monday, Hart said the inmates were so insistent on telling her about their five-minute mealtimes, they did so while looking at guards with defiance.
“I hope they don’t do anything to those people when I leave here,” Hart said.
The FDC: “Inmates are given adequate time to eat. The Department has practices in place which comply with current American Correctional Association standards regarding inmate meal timelines.”
Hart said she also told the inmates, “Don’t abuse the guards. Give what you get. Give what you want. If you give and spew hatred, that’s what you’ll get back. Be kind, be respectful. I know there are many good guards.”
She also challenged fellow legislators on both sides of the aisle to visit prisons near them to see the conditions. To those who say “it’s a prison, not a country club, you shouldn’t have done anything,” Hart said people convicted of crimes are human.
“But you would not want your family treated less than human. As a legislator, I don’t want to see anybody treated less than human. I don’t have family on the compound. But I’m here because I believe it’s important we continue this fight on prison reform.
“We cannot reform something we know nothing about.”
The FDC said it’s “committed to maintaining an open dialogue with Representative Hart and all of Florida’s elected representatives and welcome visits from legislators to any FDC institution.”
Hart asked in the video, “Are we not tired of being the laughingstock of the country in the way we treat our incarcerated people?”