The state must improve conditions for inmates and guards alike.
The horrific beating of an inmate at Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County last month brought needed attention to conditions there, but problems go far beyond the prison.
One state lawmaker is calling for an investigation into attacks by correctional officers against inmates across Florida’s prison system, while others argue that they show the need for additional funding for prisons. Another lawmaker described what is happening in the state’s prisons as a “humanitarian crisis.”
Certainly that is the impression given after what happened to Cheryl Weimar, who was incarcerated at Lowell when she suffered a beating Aug. 21 that left her quadriplegic.
A lawsuit filed on her behalf asserted that Weimar, while on a work detail inside the prison, told corrections officers that she was in pain due to a hip condition and unable to clean toilets. Four corrections officers then proceeded to brutally beat her, according to the lawsuit.
Her lawyers said Weimar suffered “life-threatening and permanent injuries, including a broken neck,” and is expected to be hospitalized “for the foreseeable future.”
This is hardly the only problem at Lowell, the country’s second-largest women’s prison. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division investigated alleged sexual abuse at the prison.
In recent months, corrections officials there have been arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking, sex with an inmate and aggravated battery involving an inmate. Earlier this month, demonstrators gathered outside the prison to bring attention to abuse there.
Beyond Lowell, reported incidents of inmates being beaten by guards at Lake Correctional Institution and the Central Florida Reception Center just this summer suggest a pervasive problem. Lawmakers confronted Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch about the issue at a meeting Wednesday of the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, questioned why Branch didn’t mention the beatings in his budget presentation to the committee, arguing that a culture of violence against inmates has led to a humanitarian crisis.
Inch suggested that shorter shifts and better retention and staffing would help. He said 42% of correctional officers leave the department within their first year, which he attributed to low salaries and the state’s switch to 12-hour shifts that leave officers exhausted and in some cases impairs their judgment.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who chairs the committee, said the Legislature should consider funding the department beyond what Inch requested. He said he was concerned about the idleness of prisoners, saying that just 6% percent of inmates would be in educational programs even if lawmakers funded all of Inch’s budget requests.
The state must improve conditions for inmates and guards alike. Lawmakers would help ensure resources are available for such needs by finally moving forward with criminal justice reforms that keep non-violent inmates out of prisons, while investing in programs that reduce recidivism.
This guest editorial was originally published in the Gainesville Sun, a sister newspaper within the GateHouse Media chain.