Video: ‘Beyond Punishment’ - Abuse and neglect in Florida women’s prison
While Cheryl Weimar, an inmate beaten until she was paralyzed from the neck down, recovers in her hospital bed, officers from the same agency that put her there stand watch, controlling access to her hospital bedside.
It’s a situation that has her legal team concerned. Since the Florida Department of Corrections has refused to identify the alleged attackers in the incident at Lowell Correctional Institution, the lawyers say they do not know if those attackers or their proxies are being kept away from her hospital room, where she lies in a vulnerable state, paralyzed from the neck down.
They worry that the still-unidentified officers who roughed her up on Aug. 21, breaking her neck, will try to intimidate her or inmate witnesses into modifying their stories or remaining silent.
Citing these concerns and others, the Andrews Law Firm has filed an emergency petition asking a judge to pull the prison system employees off the door of her room and have staff from the Inspector General’s Office, who are sworn law officers from the centralized prison system office, take over guard duty.
They say the current setup using prison staffers poses a threat to her recovery and hinders the progress of her pending lawsuit, also filed by Andrews.
The lawyers say intimidating witnesses and victims of staff abuse is a recurring theme in the Florida prison system, the nation’s third largest.
The Department of Corrections said they could not comment on pending litigation and that information available to release is limited by an ongoing Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation. When the investigation is complete the report will be public, a spokeswoman said.
Weimar, who has a history of mental illness and suffered from a physical disability, was injured when she requested to be excused from cleaning toilets because of her disability. Corrections officers then slammed her against the concrete and beat her, according to the lawsuit. They then dragged her out of view of cameras and continued to assault her, the suit says.
Though the Florida Department of Corrections says the John Doe officers cited in the lawsuit have been reassigned and no longer interact with inmates, the petition says they could still gain proxy access through other officers going in and out of Weimar’s hospital room. There hasn’t been any indication that the officers responsible have been suspended or interrogated, the lawsuit says.
“The threat on Mrs. Weimar’s life and her physical and emotional health is real and continuing so long as Lowell CI employees retain access to Weimar,” the lawsuit says.
Initially, Lowell employees guarding Weimar’s room didn’t let her lawyers take photos and videos of her injuries and wouldn’t say what her medical conditions now were. Later, when those restrictions were eased as a result of an earlier court petition, her appearance had been cleaned up — hair brushed, eyes cleaned of gunk, according to an affidavit from a private investigator for the lawyers.
However, the officers in charge of providing access wouldn’t let lawyers show Weimar documents or pictures, which is part of attorney-client privilege, said Ryan Andrews of the law firm.
“I’ve been to nearly every prison in Florida and I’ve never been denied the ability to show documents,” he said.
Officers also wouldn’t initially leave the room so the lawyers and Weimar could have a confidential conversation, according to the document. This past month, when a Miami Herald journalist interviewed an inmate accusing a Lowell officer of sexual harassment, the department demanded staff be in the room.
A woman who identified herself as Lowell’s assistant warden, Yolanda Lanier, wouldn’t allow Weimar to read any of the supportive letters and cards she’d received, according to the petition. “In what can only be interpreted as cruel,” Lanier also wouldn’t let the lawyers put a balloon and purple teddy bear — Weimar’s favorite color — in the room or outside where she could see it through the window.
When Weimar briefly saw the gifts before Lanier had them removed, Weimar responded with a big smile, according to the affidavit. Her mouth and eyes are the only things Weimar can move.
Corrections officers at Lowell, the nation’s second-largest women’s prison, have been joking about Weimar and saying she got what she deserved, according to the petition. They have also told eyewitnesses and other inmates that they could be next, the lawyers allege.
Andrews said it’s nothing new for FDC to intimidate witnesses.
“It’s institutional,” he said of the Department of Corrections. “They can never shed themselves of this. They can’t help themselves.”