What Keiko Kopp’s story illustrates about pregnancy, healthcare and First Amendment rights in the state’s only prison for pregnant women.
She had never reported before, but her news broadcasts have accumulated more than 8 million views and 153,000 followers since they began mid-summer.
Keiko Kopp reports on Lowell Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Ocala with a fraught history.
Lowell gained attention in 2019, when guards so severely beat Cheryl Weimar that she was left quadriplegic. In December, a Department of Justice report found the Florida Department of Corrections had been aware of, yet failed to prevent, ongoing sexual abuse at Lowell for over a decade.
Unlike those on the outside trying to learn what’s happening behind Lowell’s walls, Kopp reports from the inside, where she’s serving a three-year sentence.
She used the prison’s communication kiosks to pass short videos to her mother, Kathy Moyer, who posted them to the TikTok account @kay_livenews.
Kopp, 32, said Lowell staff threatened to send her to administrative confinement — a disciplinary cell with no access to communication kiosks or phones — if she didn’t stop the account.
In a video posted on Sept. 18, the last on the account, Kopp relayed that threat along with her refusal to stop.
Two days later, Moyer received a letter from Florida Department of Corrections saying if she continued to post the videos, they would suspend her visiting privileges.
‘Where the days are as dark as black coffee’
Every video begins with Kopp’s tagline:
“This is Kay coming from Lowell CI with prison news, where the days are as dark as black coffee.”
Between the main facility and the annex, Lowell can house roughly 3,000 women. It’s the state’s only prison for pregnant women.
The videos depict a grim reality.
Incarcerated women care for each other as sick calls go weeks without response, Kopp told viewers. Lowell staff are not testing them for COVID-19 after intake despite more than 200 coronavirus deaths in Florida prisons. They’re given no hand soap, paper towels, or cleaner for the bed areas — just one hotel-size soap bottle per week for all their needs. Toilet paper doesn’t last the week.
“We are sitting ducks for the next virus,” she said.
A Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson said, “Female inmates are provided medical services including feminine hygiene products at no cost.”
Kopp was drawn to the factual format of a news show.
“I didn’t want to complain,” she told WUFT News. “I just want to tell people what’s going on.”
Sometimes, she breaks up the serious content with prison hacks — using underwear elastic as a hair tie, watercolor pencils as eyeliner.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with TikTokers clamoring to learn what goes on inside a system that has long been opaque.
Some users record themselves watching the broadcasts: “Just standing here while this plays because I need more people to hear the voices of incarcerated people.”
The recent combination of video messages and social media presents a powerful new way for incarcerated people to be heard, one more immediate and far-reaching than letter writing and more accessible than litigation.
Many states prohibit social media use during incarceration. Some even prohibit posting on an incarcerated person’s behalf. One person in South Carolina received nearly four decades in disciplinary detention for posting to Facebook.
Prison regulations against use don’t discriminate between posts that violate content rules, like harassment or inciting violence, and posts that don’t.
Most relevant to Kopp, Florida forbids use of prison communication kiosks for “relaying, streaming, or rebroadcasting through any medium.”
When asked for comment on the account, why rebroadcasting is a concern, and whether administrative confinement is a standard response, a Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson only responded with the regulations and pointed to what is allowed:
“Inmates’ first amendment rights may be exercised through their ability to regularly communicate with legal representatives, family, friends, etc. through an array of established and easily accessible methods.”
As a non-incarcerated person, Moyer should have full First Amendment rights, according to Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at UF.
If Kopp sent a letter, Moyer could distribute copies. Constitutionally, the video medium would have to be uniquely dangerous to justify special rules, and all video communications are already monitored.
Kopp wishes she had started the account sooner, when she was still pregnant. Maybe she could have gotten help.
The story that couldn’t be told in 60 seconds
“I’ve decided it’s important to tell you a very personal story,” Kopp began her Sept. 7 video.
But the full story of losing her child — the powerlessness of incarcerated pregnancy, the pain of a violent birth, the love for a baby she’d named — couldn’t fit into 60 seconds.
Years ago, she left an abusive relationship and lost her vehicle and the jobs it had allowed her to work. She resorted to odd jobs on Facebook, anything to care for her four kids and get a new place.
In 2018, Kopp agreed to sell a friend methamphetamine. She brought 2 ounces to a Best Western in DeFuniak Springs.
The arrest report reveals it was a controlled purchase — her friend was a confidential informant.
Kopp and Moyer both said Kopp never used, only sold.
Kopp fought her case for two years, during which Moyer said her daughter seemed to be pulling her life together and started a cleaning business.
Then, two days before Christmas 2020, she discovered she was pregnant.
The doctor warned it was a risky pregnancy since she’d recently miscarried, and urged her to come in for screening. The earliest available appointment was Jan. 6.
On Jan. 5, she was sentenced to the mandatory minimum of three years in prison and a $50,000 fine for charges of drug trafficking.The judge sent her straight to Walton County Jail.
Walton jail staff were arranging another medical appointment for her. They provided supplemental nutrition as Florida law requires for incarcerated pregnant women: a sandwich and fresh fruit, three milks a day, prenatal vitamins.
On Jan. 21, that all ended when she was transferred to Lowell.
At Lowell, Kopp said she wasn’t given any supplemental nutrition. Dinner was served in the early afternoon and breakfast 15 hours later. She ate TUMS to satiate her hunger.
She filed a medical complaint. The response said “the food provided is not a medical issue and, in the future, you will need to address your concerns with food services.”
She had a lifelong iron deficiency, but she couldn’t buy multivitamins from the commissary until her mother figured out where she was and how to put money on her books.
She didn’t receive prenatal vitamins until weeks after arrival.
Prison regulations don’t differ for pregnant women and the general population. Revoking of canteen privileges to buy extra food can be used as punishment, something Kopp said happened to her twice — once when another woman tried to give her a burrito.
Lowell’s OB-GYN, Dr. Seaborn Hunt, diagnosed her with a vaginal infection, one considered a risk for preterm labor, and prescribed antibiotics. She didn’t receive them until nearly two months later.
Lowell health services never completed testing for Kopp’s suspected case of gestational diabetes.
Moyer kept copies of a half dozen grievances Kopp filed with the Florida Department of Corrections between Feb. 9 and April 20 requesting care: nutrition, antibiotics, supplements and an ultrasound.
“I am worried for my unborn baby,” Kopp pleaded in February, four months pregnant.
Later: “Both myself and my daughter are at risk.”
Many were denied by corrections officials, or returned for not following proper filing protocol. Kopp said her dorm doesn’t have a copy of the protocol handbook, though she requested one.
Incarcerated people are legally entitled to adequate medical care. In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs” is a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Prior, the only medical care in most jails was first aid.
Clear standards for what constitutes adequate medical care have not been set.
A Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson said, “Ensuring inmates incarcerated in Florida’s prisons receive all necessary medical treatment in line with evolving national standards is one of FDC’s top priorities, and a core constitutional responsibility.”
On Feb. 25, Kopp received an ultrasound that showed possible cranial abnormalities. She was referred for another ultrasound by North Florida Regional Medical Center performed three weeks later.
How this story was reported
In addition to the sources named in this story, reporter Katie Hyson spoke with other women incarcerated at Lowell and two medical experts on anencephaly. She reviewed documentation including, but not limited to, grievance reports, arrest reports, JPay communications regarding Kopp and Kopp’s medical records.
WUFT tried for 10 days to reach Dr. Ader Benoit for response by phone and email.
The reporter called Lowell over a dozen times.
The first time, a staff member in health services said they would give Benoit the message and the reporter’s contact.
The subsequent times, the reporter was transferred to multiple employees of at least five departments and ultimately declined assistance or left on a line that would ring for five minutes before giving a dial tone and no opportunity to leave a voicemail.
The reporter was once told they could speak only to Lowell’s “legal team,” declined a contact for that legal team, and was later told there was no legal team.
The reporter emailed Benoit four times at his address listed with the Florida Department of Health.
The reporter asked the Florida Department of Corrections to make Benoit aware of the invitation for response and was redirected to Centurion Health, the company that contracts the doctors at Lowell.
The reporter left two voicemails and sent three emails over four days to Centurion Health requesting they respond to Kopp’s claims and inform Benoit of the invitation for response. They did not answer. On the last day, the reporter called twice more, but the media inquiries phone number was no longer in service.
The reporter reached Dr. Seaborn Hunt at his private practice. He was aware Kopp was willing to sign a HIPAA release but said he was advised not to talk to media and declined to comment.
A Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson declined to comment on Kopp’s medical care, citing privacy law, though he was aware Kopp was willing to sign a HIPAA release.
The images showed anencephaly, a defect in which the neural tube doesn’t close completely and the baby’s brain is exposed. The condition would have already developed before she was sentenced.
Anencephaly is often genetic, but can also be caused by lack of adequate folic acid during the first four weeks of pregnancy, when most women aren’t yet aware they’re pregnant. When the U.S. began fortifying grains with folic acid in 1998, pregnancies with neural tube defects dropped by 28%.
Almost every time, anencephaly ends in stillbirth or death shortly after birth. In rare cases, the baby may live up to a few weeks, or in one extreme anomaly, a couple years.
The next day, two officers escorted Kopp in handcuffs to Hunt, who confirmed the condition.
She remembers the officers laughing and swapping stories while she cried at the news. She said they denied her lunch and ate in front of her. She had not eaten for 22 hours.
She was almost six months pregnant. She declined Hunt’s offer to induce labor, in which the pressure on the baby’s brain would almost certainly stop the baby’s heart.
The father, Caedon Willis, chose Raven for the first name. Kopp chose Faith for the middle name. Maybe God would spare her child.
“She couldn’t make that call,” Moyer said. “So she went through the whole pregnancy for that chance. It seems like since she said no to that offer, that’s when they just stopped helping her.”
In April, construction began on the dorm for pregnant women. Dust was everywhere. It wasn’t until the women complained that they were moved.
A May note from Hunt in Kopp’s medical records said: “Wants to do everything for the survival of this baby. I told her that I would be willing to do a c-sect if she preferred.”
In June, Kopp said the pregnant women finally started receiving supplemental nutrition: one pouch of powdered milk per day.
She began gaining pounds of water weight a day onto her formerly 110-pound frame.
Buildup of amniotic fluid, or polyhydramnios, is a common side effect of anencephaly. It can cause preterm contractions. To prolong pregnancy, a procedure can be done to reduce the buildup.
Kopp said Lowell medical staff told her it was summertime swelling and gave her an ibuprofen. She was too weak to get out of bed.
An ultrasound done on June 22 concluded “significant polyhydramnios.”
The next morning, she went into labor. The following is Kopp’s telling of her experience, to which Centurion Health, Seaborn and Hunt have not provided a response.
Kopp had birthed five children before. She knew labor. Her contractions were two minutes apart, 50 seconds long.
They didn’t bring her a wheelchair. She walked a block and a half uphill by herself.
Though Lowell is the only prison in the state for pregnant women, an OB-GYN only comes on Thursdays. It was Wednesday.
The prison doctor, Dr. Ader Benoit, said she was two centimeters dilated. Instead of taking her to delivery, she would go into observation. She didn’t understand.
She was placed in an infirmary room alone. No cameras. No guards. No nurses. She asked for a phone but was told the batteries were dead.
She paced behind the glass wall, doubled over, cried and begged through her contractions.
Benoit didn’t come again until the afternoon. Kopp said he didn’t check her contractions or dilation. She said he looked at her from the hallway and told her to sit down, that she wasn’t in labor, it was just pressure from the water weight.
Kopp began to panic.
They wheeled her to the annex, where the monitor showed contraction lines that looked like mountain peaks to Kopp — straight up and straight across. But staff said the contractions weren’t enough to signify active labor.
There, Kopp began calling her mother for help.
Moyer said she could hear “how distraught and unbelievably out of control she was, the pain and screaming, crying. And she’s usually well put together.”
Being the mother of someone in prison, Moyer said, is the most powerless she has ever felt.
Hours later, Lowell medical staff moved Kopp to an empty cell at the end of the hallway and left the door open.
Kopp said she was in labor all night with painful contractions, bleeding and urinating on herself, screaming and begging for help. On the machine, the “contractions just kept going and going and going.”
Her mother told her she needed to try to break her water somehow, so Kopp tried to do it herself.
“It was a horrific movie scene,” Kopp said.
Kopp said she lost her mind in that cell.
They wheeled her to see Dr. Hunt the next morning, but he still wasn’t in and they brought her right back.
After “begging and screaming and causing problems all morning,” Kopp said, Benoit appeared in the hallway.
“Please just check me,” she pleaded.
She was seven centimeters dilated.
Thirty hours of labor.
She wanted a cesarean section at UF Health Shands Hospital. According to Kopp, Hunt said he didn’t want to do surgery for a nonviable life.
Kopp now believes Lowell medical staff were never checking the machine for her contractions. She thinks they were watching her baby’s heart rate decline.
An ambulance took her to AdventHealth Ocala, where her amniotic sac began to come out of her.
On the emergency transfer paperwork, Benoit noted Kopp had been complaining of contractions since the previous night.
She heard Hunt, who was at AdventHealth, tell the neonatologist that he was hoping the baby’s heart would have stopped before she came in.
“My baby had a condition. The top of her skull wasn’t closed, I get that. But she was in my belly safe, sucking her thumb, kicking her feet, you know? And until I saw her I wasn’t going to give up.”
When they finally broke her water, 7 liters came out.
Vaginal delivery crushed the baby’s brain. The images still haunt Kopp.
An hour after birth, Raven Faith died in Kopp’s arms.
She has never forgotten the kindness of the two Lowell guards who stayed with her that night; the woman cried for hours when she saw Raven had died. Kopp wishes she knew their names.
Before 24 hours had passed, Kopp was handcuffed, led away from Raven’s body and back to her regular bunk.
The fate of anencephaly, once developed, isn’t changeable with modern medicine. Care for the mother is.
Centurion Health was the only bidder for a three-year contract to provide healthcare through 2022 in Florida correctional institutions, including Lowell.
A lawsuit was filed last year against Centurion of Mississippi and the Mississippi Department of Corrections for medical negligence in a state prison. Centurion terminated its contract with the state, saying they couldn’t provide a higher level of care if the state did not increase funding and staffing to the prisons.
Raven Faith’s funeral was held in Niceville, Kopp’s hometown in the Panhandle. It was too far away for the window of leave that Lowell administration permitted.
She missed her daughter’s funeral.
Reports, reforms, and risks
Documentation of incarcerated pregnancy is sparse. Two studies since 2000 show 3% to 5% of women are pregnant when incarcerated. Though the rate has held steady, the number of incarcerated women has risen, meaning an increasing number of babies carried and delivered behind bars.
Black women and women of lower socioeconomic status face much higher rates of incarceration, pregnancy loss, infant mortality and maternal mortality — issues that are likely connected.
Two months after Kopp lost Raven, Erica Thompson lost the baby she delivered prematurely in Alachua County Jail, bringing care for incarcerated pregnant women back to media and legislative attention.
Ben Crump, whose legal practice has taken on numerous widely publicized cases including those of George Floyd, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, is now filing a wrongful death suit on behalf of Thompson.
At a state legislature subcommittee meeting Sept. 23, Rep. Michele K. Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, pressed Florida Department of Health Bureau Chief Shay Chapman with questions about the tracking and handling of infant mortality rates of incarcerated people, and who provides oversight of incarcerated pregnancies. Chapman did not provide immediate answers.
Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, D- Gainesville, visited Lowell in mid-September to check on the pregnant women.
In the hours before her visit, Kopp said staff scrambled to paint over mold, patch the ceiling and fix the air conditioner.
“The pregnant women are having trouble getting nutrition,” Hinson said, “and that nutrition is having an effect on their fetuses. And some of them are being born in distress and stillborn.”
Hinson said the women tell her these stories despite fear of retaliation.
Hinson plans to propose legislation that includes an addition to allow pregnant women to be electronically monitored and delay incarceration until after birth.
She’s unsure whether the legislation will pass the Republican-controlled legislature, but said she has some allies for prison reform across the aisle.
In the meantime, she’s finding it more productive to work directly with prison administration. She is hoping it will result in better nutrition for pregnant women, for a start.
On Sept. 22, Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections Ricky Dixon warned the state legislature that immediate intervention into staffing and overcrowding is needed. The recent closures of three institutions is not enough to solve the problem.
The pay, he said, is too uncompetitive — nearly a third of security positions are vacant and it’s leading to rapid burnout. Every month, 200 people are hired and 400 people leave. Agency leadership is asking the legislature to raise starting pay.
Debra Bennett-Austin doesn’t think Lowell can be reformed. She’s on a mission to shut it down, along with her team of formerly incarcerated women who form the board of Change Comes Now.
Her left arm is tattooed with the loved ones who died while she was incarcerated at Lowell. Her right arm remains permanently crooked, wrist unable to rotate, from when she broke it stripping the wax from Lowell’s floors.
Her phone rings nonstop with calls from incarcerated women and their family members.
Bennett-Austin said the Change Comes Now JPay account — the communication platform for Florida prisons — is connected to several thousand incarcerated women so they can message her directly and she can get accurate news to the inside.
In a system that limits an incarcerated person’s ability to communicate with the outside world, many rely on Bennett-Austin.
She said nothing has improved since the protests over Cheryl Weimar or the Department of Justice report. Reports are released, media arrives, media leaves. Nothing changes.
“God help the state of Florida if I ever win the lottery because we will change it all,” she said.
All of Kopp’s claims ring true to her own experience and those of the thousands of women she’s in communication with, Bennett-Austin said. She also received nearly a dozen emails throughout Kopp’s pregnancy and after the birth from another woman incarcerated at Lowell who was trying to get Kopp help.
Bennett-Austin is concerned for Kopp’s safety. She said women rarely speak out about abuse and neglect in Lowell for fear of retaliation.
A Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson said, “The FDC grievance process and an anonymous TIPS line that contacts the Office of the Inspector General directly provide inmates every opportunity to report misconduct without fear of retribution.”
Kopp is preparing, just in case. She sent her mom a video for each of her children.
It’s worth the risk to Kopp. She is determined to make the remaining two years of her sentence mean something, to get word out about what’s happening to the people around her. She plans to keep fighting for them after she’s released.
Her mother said she’s always been that way — toeing the line, taking risks.
In middle school, the mayor of Niceville gave Kopp a medal for saving someone from drowning. Kopp laughs at the memory. She jumped into the creek to help them before realizing she couldn’t swim very well either.
She doesn’t plan to stop speaking about Lowell. She is jumping into the creek.
In one of her last videos, Moyer reads Kopp a comment: “You did the crime, you got to do the time. Why are you whining?”
“I understand that I committed a crime and so I was sent to prison,” Kopp replied. “But I want to ask: What happens when the prison is the one committing the crime?
Staring into the camera, she left her viewers with a question:
“What is punishment? When is it enough?”