Let’s stipulate that prisons can be dangerous places for both inmates and guards. But there can be no excuses for the brutal beating last month of a mentally and physically disabled woman by guards at the Lowell Correctional Institution that left her paralyzed from the neck down. Investigations are under way, and perhaps this horrific attack is the one that finally leads to lasting reforms in Florida’s prisons.
A federal civil rights lawsuit alleges that in August four male prison guards at Lowell attacked Cheryl Weimar, a 51-year-old inmate suffering from mental illness who also had a hip condition. As the Miami Herald reported, Weimar complained she was in pain and unable to clean a toilet. The lawsuit says the officers slammed her to the concrete floor and beat her, then dragged her outside where the beating continued outside the range of security cameras. Her lawyer says Weimar’s neck was broken and she is now a quadriplegic hooked to a breathing tube. There is nothing in this description of events that remotely justifies such violent, inhumane treatment.
The Department of Corrections’ response? Corrections Secretary Mark Inch allowed "that preliminary reports from this incident are concerning.'' Concerning? The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating, but the guards have not been suspended or sent home. Inch said in a statement two days after the attack that the guards involved were reassigned to positions that do not have contact with inmates until the investigation is completed. Reassigned? That hardly seems commensurate with the seriousness of the situation, particularly given the indefensible track record at Lowell.
The state’s largest women’s prison already is under investigation by the Justice Department, which notified former Gov. Rick Scott last year it was looking into conditions there. That investigation focuses on inmates who have been sexually assaulted by corrections officers. A 2015 Miami Herald report described deplorable conditions at the prison and detailed instances of inmates being forced to have sex with prison staff in return for protection from other officers and for necessities such as sanitary napkins and toilet paper. This latest assault suggests little has changed in the prison’s culture even with a new corrections secretary in place under Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Of course, the state has not been eager for the public to see much about the attack on Weimar, who the Herald reported declared a mental-health emergency that should have triggered medical intervention under the prison policy instead of a brutal beating. The newspaper reported her lawyer finally was allowed to take pictures of Weimar’s injuries after the Department of Corrections prohibited her from taking them for two weeks.
Florida’s criminal justice system has many issues. The nation’s third-largest prison system has nearly 100,000 inmates, and too many are locked up too long for nonviolent crimes. While Lowell is run by the state, there are too many prisons run by private companies that aren’t saving taxpayers money. The corrections system already costs taxpayers $2.7 billion a year and faces soaring health care costs for an aging prison population. And Inch candidly told state lawmakers last week there is "an issue of culture'' within his department. He asked for $29 million next year to start reducing 12-hour shifts for guards, plus another $60 million for modest raises to try to reduce high turnover among prison guards.
The bottom line: Florida’s prison system is one hot mess that has not been effectively addressed by previous governors.
The first priority should be clear: There can be no tolerance for corrections officers who sexually assault and physically attack inmates. The federal and state investigations at the women’s prison in Lowell should be thorough, and they should hold accountable anyone who condones or participates in such violence. Remember, the attackers being paid with public money and acting on behalf of the state and all Floridians.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news