Airing Florida’s dirty prison secrets

Airing Florida’s dirty prison secrets

By Christopher Zoukis

A recent investigation of the country’s largest women’s correctional facility has revealed levels of corruption and inhumanity that don’t simply border on the illegal, but have placed individuals working there firmly into the category of criminals themselves.

Through a telling new series of articles, Julie Brown of the Miami Herald has revealed that at Lowell Correctional Institution in Marion County, Florida, the abuse and neglect that is often considered par for the course at many American penal facilities are just the tip of the iceberg there. Prison wardens have seemingly turned a blind eye to an informal prostitution market that’s developed over the years within its walls. Male staff members paying prisoners (either through contraband, cash, or payment to family members) for sexual favors is commonplace, as too, is the retaliation for the withdrawal of such favors.  It’s easy enough to blame the women for agreeing to perform these acts, but given the overall levels of corruption, neglect, and abuse at Lowell, it’s more often about survival. Rewards may be simple things like cigarettes, but in some cases, acts are performed to avoid isolation or to gain access to personal hygiene necessities.

A central figure in this market was Assistant Warden Marty Martinez, whose inappropriate behavior was well-documented during his tenure there from 2012 to February 2015 when he was finally dismissed. But according to a former sergeant at Lowell, corruption ran so rampant that he believed that as many as 40% of the staff were implicated. The Florida Department of Corrections itself would seem to have been aware of these issues for some time, as its own investigations of the state’s prisons revealed Lowell is among the worst.

The situation is also unlikely to change in light of the past several years of serious cutbacks to staffing and education programs for prisons in Florida. As reported, lower staff salaries have resulted in seriously underqualified individuals being hired, which researchers believe contributes to the increased number of incidents of violence and abuse targeted at prisoners.  

You would think that the revelation that the state hit a record high for prisoner deaths this past spring (many of which occurred at Lowell)  would have prompted the kind of dramatic overhaul called for by observers, but you’d be wrong.  In fact, FDC is currently the subject of a lawsuit by the Herald for allegedly failing to provide access to a series of mysterious deaths of prisoners. 

A new warden took over Lowell this spring, Angela Gordon, but she appears to have blinders on as to the embedded corruption inherent to the facility, according to prisoners, former staff, and the state itself. As so often is the case, they are seeking bandaid solutions that are tantamount to putting lipstick on a pig. Gordon has been highly critical of the Herald report, stating that the Herald had failed to adequately report how she has “turned around” Lowell. In response to complaints, Lowell has apparently “dismissed 19 individuals at Lowell, demoted three, suspended three, and issued 43 written reprimands. There have been 115 new hires, including 100 corrections officers, five sergeants, four lieutenants, four captains, one major, and a colonel.” 

Yet to my mind, there appears to be something missing in this whole discussion. How is it that individuals who have been found to be engaging in the wholesale abuse of prisoners are only shown the door? The acts described in the investigation are considered to be illegal according to Florida law, yet not one of those individuals was investigated or charged. Does the “you do the crime, you do the time” mantra not apply to those individuals simply because it’s inconvenient to admit that those charged with guarding the prisoners might themselves need to be incarcerated? In Florida, “It is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, for a corrections officer or staffer to engage in sex with an inmate.” 

I will believe that Lowell’s new warden and the state of Florida are committed to “turning things around” when I see the prosecutors lining up to indict the criminals who were charged with guarding the prisoners.

Gordon claims that Lowell is hardly a “hellhole.” If abuse, torture, filth, rape, and death don’t constitute the landscape of a “hellhole,” I shudder to think of what Gordon has in her mind when she uses that word.