(UPDATE) Just days after a leading GOP state senator described Florida’s prison system as “in crisis,” three House Democrats made an unannounced visit to Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala – the site of a recent brutal inmate beating by corrections officers.
The group — State Reps. Anna Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith from Orlando and Dianne Hart of Tampa — spent three hours visiting Lowell on Saturday, talking to inmates and corrections officers. They met later at a nearby church with former inmates and family members of current inmates at Lowell.
“We just heard what’s already been reported in the news – this culture of corruption,” Smith told the Florida Phoenix in an interview Monday.
The lawmakers discussed prison reform in the wake of allegations of violence perpetuated in Florida’s corrections facilities.
Lowell, one of the largest women’s prisons in America, is the site of an alleged physical attack last month by four corrections officers against inmate Cheryl Weimar, whose severe injuries have left her bedridden and a quadriplegic.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Department of Correction’s Office of Inspector General are investigating that incident.
The lawmakers and former inmates proposed ideas to improve prison conditions, such as placing body cameras on corrections officers at all times, or installing cameras in every inch of prisons “because there are known blind spots in every prison,” said Smith.
The Orlando Democrat said he and his two colleagues also visited the Delta Dorm at Lowell, where pregnant inmates are isolated from the rest of the prison population. That building has no air conditioning, which is common in Florida prisons.
“So you have pregnant inmates who are enduring sometimes 115 degree temperatures over the summer while pregnant,” Smith says.
“Every single one of them is a high-risk pregnancy because of the fact that they are serving their time in our state prisons, and they’re just not being adequately cared for, which has consequences for the mother and the newborn if they’re able to successfully carry the pregnancy to term.”
(A department of Corrections spokesperson told the Phoenix on Tuesday that the department has had a “plan in place for more than a year to find a cooling solution or alternative dorm location for pregnant inmates. This issue was identified, resources were allocated and the equipment has been ordered. A cooling system is expected to be installed in the coming weeks”).
Interest in Florida’s corrections system among legislators has never been higher says Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes from St. Petersburg, who has taken several of his GOP colleagues unannounced to several state prisons earlier this summer for observational visits.
Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch spoke last week before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, which is chaired by Brandes.
Inch wants to to shrink the daily work schedule for corrections officers from 12 hours a day to 8.5 hours, to relieve the stress on officers. That would be a major policy proposal. But Brandes said afterwards that he would go further than Inch in reforming the system.
And Smith said he would go further as well.
“We need to go beyond that to make sure that we’re also hiring additional staff that are being paid better, because the turnover for corrections officer is very high,” Smith says. “They’re not very experienced and there’s no question that isn’t in some way contributing to this culture of corruption and abuse.”
Smith also says what can’t be overlooked is that corrections officers are “overworked and under payed.”
“It’s one part of the problem,” he says. “It’s not all of it, but it’s one part of the program, and it has to be addressed.”