Two weeks after guards at Lowell Correctional Institution brutally beat a mentally and physically disabled woman, former inmates at the women’s prison are taking to social media to protest inhumane conditions and physical and sexual abuse that inmates say they have suffered for more than a decade.
On Saturday morning, a vigil was held outside the compound, the second in recent weeks, in part to protest the beating of Cheryl Weimar, a 51-year-old inmate who was slammed to a concrete floor, kicked and dragged by guards on Aug. 21. The attack left her paralyzed from the neck down. She remains hospitalized, hooked to a breathing apparatus, her lawyer, Ryan Andrews, told the Miami Herald.
One former inmate, Jordyn Cahill, also used YouTube to voice her disgust over the attack, detailing the sexual abuse Cahill herself said she had been subjected to during her eight years at the facility, ending in 2013. She named at least 11 correctional officers, including supervisors, alleging in graphic detail that they had groped, sexually attacked and extorted her for sex. In one incident, she said, an officer with a foot fetish refused to give her toilet paper unless she allowed him to play with her feet.
“For Cheryl, or any other incarcerated woman who has physically abused or sexually abused by any officer, or any male inmate who is physically or sexually abused, I am going to tell my story, I’m going to promote others to tell their story and I’m going to share the f— out of it,’’ Cahill said, vowing that she would pass a lie detector test about her experiences at Lowell.
One of several Lowell activist groups, Change is Now, also produced an emotional video that was online, posted on Facebook, that includes photographs of women who have died at the prison, through abuse or medical neglect.
“Lowell Correctional family, friends and formerly incarcerated have sat silent long enough while our daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers and other women incarcerated in Lowell Correctional Institution have been harmed in one way or another,’’ the group said in a press announcement about Saturday’s protest.
“We will stand together united in silence as we scream for help for the women who remain incarcerated inside of Lowell Correctional Institution.’’
The beating of Weimar happened at Lowell, the largest women’s prison in Florida and the second largest in the nation. The state facility, run by the Florida Department of Corrections, is located in Central Florida, south of Orlando, and has a long history of human rights violations, some of which are the focus of an ongoing probe by the U.S. Department of Justice.
On Saturday, Andrews was finally permitted to take photographs of Weimar’s injuries, two weeks after guards at the prison broke her neck and assaulted her after she told them she couldn’t clean a toilet because of a hip condition. Frightened that they were going to harm her, she declared a mental health emergency, but the officers ignored her pleas and began beating her, Andrews and several sources with knowledge of the attack told the Herald.
Initially the Florida Department of Corrections refused to allow Andrews to take photographs of her, and he had to file a court petition in order to force the agency to permit him to document her injuries. She is suing the agency.
Word spread quickly throughout Lowell after the attack. Unlike all-male prisons, the female inmates at Lowell form bonds that continue after they are released, and women on the outside have for years advocated for those on the inside who are subjected to abuse, medical neglect and, at times, inhumane living conditions.
The latest beating is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Corrections. None of the officers has been charged or fired.
“It is imperative that the public find out what happened here and that the public have access to the videotapes showing Cheryl beaten to within an inch of her life,’’ Andrews told the Herald. “Now a quadriplegic as a result of the beating, Cheryl will never get to walk in her garden and play with her cats, or swim in the ocean, things she once loved, all because she needed help because of her disabilities. What happens behind the walls at Lowell is evil. ’’
Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said after the beating that “preliminary reports from this incident are concerning,’’ but he has not commented further. A spokeswoman for the agency noted that FDC policy is not to comment on anything that is the subject of an ongoing investigation or lawsuit.
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 have urged DOJ to expand the investigation to include other misconduct by officers, since the sexual assaults often are tied to other acts of physical violence.
State Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, said she has been stunned by the amount of abuse, medical neglect and horrible living conditions she has discovered. Over the past few months, she has visited 31 of the state’s 50 institutions. The agency has nearly 100,000 inmates and is the third-largest prison system in the nation.
“I know these are prisons, not country clubs. I understand that. But these inmates should be treated fairly,’’ she said. “I hear from people every day about how they are not getting proper medical treatment, how they aren’t getting education and how they are treated poorly.’’