About 40 protestors attended and nearly one thousand images of people were sent in support
Pink, unicorn-patterned duct tape covered Latangela McCall and her 6-year-old daughter Akyah Ward’s mouths as they held signs outside Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala on Saturday.
McCall, 38, gazed stoically at the complex, Florida’s largest women’s prison, during a silent protest joined by about 40 other former inmates, their loved ones and prison reform advocates.
All of their mouths were sealed with adhesive tape. But the signs they held high spoke volumes.
“Change is now, tired of talking, no one listens,” Akyah’s sign read.
Hundreds of images of people – with lines on their mouths – were affixed on signs. The images were garnered from nearly one thousand sympathizers reached in advance through social media, and the lines were intended to mirror the duct tape stuck to the protesters’ lips.
They were protesting the Aug. 21 prison beating of Lowell inmate Cheryl Weimar, 51. Four prison guards slammed her on a floor, elbowed her neck and dragged her like “a rag doll” until she was away from any cameras, according to a civil lawsuit as reported by the Miami Herald.
The guards continued the assault until Weimar was nearly dead, according to the lawsuit. She is now a quadriplegic and will require medical, financial and emotional support the rest of her life.
“Weimar’s beating is alarming but not surprising,” said Debra Bennett, 51, a former Lowell inmate from West Palm Beach who organized the protest.
People traveled from hours across Florida to symbolically speak out against the attack. Bennett and others planned it as a way to make a statement in a unique but safe way.
“Silence got everybody’s attention – nobody ever listens to us convicts,” Bennett said. “We’re here to prove a point.”
The Florida Department of Corrections declined to comment specifically about Weimar’s case because of the pending litigation. In a prepared statement, however, the department said it was conducting a “thorough and independent investigation,” and that the correctional officers involved have been reassigned to different posts and won’t have contact with inmates.
“We recognize that preliminary reports from this incident are concerning,” FDC Secretary Mark Inch said in the statement. “We’re committed to examining all the details regarding the situation and ensuring appropriate action is taken.”
Lowell has a history of troubling incidents or circumstances involving against inmates, according to the Herald. They include inmates being submitted to human trafficking, a lack of staff members, little to no hygienic supplies and guards abusing power, according to the newspaper.
“We’ve been talking long enough,” Bennett told WUFT News before the protest. “I’m tired of talking. We want action.”
Former inmates and staff spoke of the prison less as a place for rehabilitation, and more as a center of sexual, physical and mental abuse by overworked and under qualified staff. They said staff gave prisoners only two or three minutes to eat and made them stay in unventilated cells wearing heavy-layered jumpsuits while the Florida heat beat down on them.
“It keeps getting worse,” Bennett said. “There’s going to be somebody else beaten.”
Don Stanton, a sergeant who retired from the correctional facility in 2017, stopped by the protest to offer water and comfort to those in need. The problem lies deeper than most people understand, Stanton, 67, of Ocala, said. He supported the protest because it calls out how incidents like Weimar’s point out systematic problems.
“It never should have happened,” Stanton said.
State Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, did not attend the protest, but toured Lowell on Aug. 25 and said she found the conditions there startling. Hart said room temperatures felt like 100 degrees, and women were using three or four thin sanitary napkins at a time for menstrual needs.
“We’re not treating people like people,” Hart told WUFT. “We’re treating people like animals.”
John Meekins, 50, another former sergeant who worked at Lowell for 13 years, said the type of beating Weimar sustained is not unheard of at the prison. Meekins said it was often staff versus the inmates, with staffers routinely asking others to look the other way while abusing someone.
“It’s a tough place to work if you have a conscience,” said Meekins, who now lives in Columbus, Ohio, and supported the protest. “There’s a lot of pressure to treat women as less than human.”
Meekins stressed that not every officer was abusive, but he also said the level of training isn’t where it needs to be. Many times, he said, he witnessed guards being unable to understand people with disabilities and develop the extra compassion inmates may need.
The minimum requirements to becoming a Florida corrections officer: Being at least age 18 and a U.S. citizen, earning a high school or diploma or equivalency, and a valid driver’s license.
FDC guidelines also state candidate must not have been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor involving perjury or a false statement, or have a misdemeanor conviction for domestic violence. They also must “demonstrate good moral character” and pass a background investigation.
In its statement, the corrections department said it has a “constitutional mandate” to provide appropriate mental and medical healthcare to all Florida inmates.
Yet it’s hard for inmates such as Weimar to receive proper mental health care when prison staff are unable to provide it, said Mae Quinn, a visiting University of Florida law professor and former director of the MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis.
“At the end of the day,” Quinn said. “It’s often about money and whatever institutions can do to save money.”
It’s tricky to take legal action against abuse as an inmate, Quinn said. Some inmates live in fear that they will face unprovoked retaliation or mistreatment. An inmate can fill a criminal complaint or seek a civil injunction of protection against a wrongdoer, she said. But often complaints are ignored or an inmate ends up as a target for further abuse.
Advocates insist Lowell needs more qualified staffers and humane living conditions for inmates.
“These women are coming home and released back into society,” Bennett said. “But when these people are being beaten and battered, they’re not going to be someone you want to be your neighbor.”
The advocates acknowledge that not everyone working at Lowell treats inmates poorly.
“We’re not here to villainize,” said Diadenis Suarez, 44, of Tampa, a former inmate who is now director of marketing and operations for Leading Returning Citizens, a nonprofit advocacy group. “But the abuse has to stop.”
The protest ended with former inmates one by one saying their names and prison numbers in front of the crowd as each voice echoed in the fields surrounding Lowell.
The advocates vowed to continue fighting on behalf of inmates there.
“It’s up to us as a society to figure out how to rehabilitate them,” Bennett said.