© Lowell Correctional Institution
The State of Florida faces a lawsuit over allegations that it subjected inmates at a women's prison to sexual, mental and physical abuse. Former prisoners spoke to RT about the demeaning and illegal treatment they received from the facility's employees.
When Crystal Harper arrived at Lowell Correctional Institution, the largest women's prison in the US, she expected to serve her time and follow the judge's sentencing orders. However, trouble began less than 24 hours into her five-year sentence.
“It was a means of legal prostitution. He (prison employee) grabbed my butt and told me 'this is going to be mine.' Just that fast. I hadn't even been in prison for 24 hours,” Harper told RT.
Feeling as though she had no one to turn to, Harper gave the prison employees what they wanted – every day for five years.
“Either you play their game or you get raped,” she said.
Recalling some of the typical proposals she received every day, Harper said that prison staff would often approach her with questions such as “What do I have to do to get my **** ****** around here?”
She added that the way she was treated left a serious emotional toll, stating that she would lie in her bunk and night “realizing what [I] had to do that day, the day before, the week before...”
Harper is just one of many women who have filed a lawsuit against the state for their treatment at Lowell.
“I had a lieutenant come through, night shift, and write on the back of a notepad and hold it up to my window, a little note, numerous different times. One of them [said] 'get naked,' 'get doggy style,' 'get on all fours,' 'show me your vagina.' And he's not the only one,” former inmate Nicola Cruz said.
Another former inmate, Tanya Yelvington, has a different story of abuse, alleging that the prison failed to respond to her health concerns in a timely manner. She recalled that it took her sister 16 months to convince authorities to examine Tanya’s breasts for cancer. By that point, the disease had seriously attacked her body.
When the state finally admitted that Yelvington needed surgery, they “butchered” it.
“The Department of Corrections was supposed to do a double mastectomy [but I got] literally butchered. They left all of this here. All of this is a chance for the cancer to come back in,” she told RT.
“I look in the mirror every day and see what they did to me, refused to fix me. How can you not hate such animals?” she asked, adding that the prison system is only concerned about saving money for the state – not about keeping the streets safe.
Doublespeak from official
The women are now suing the state of Florida for damages. But despite their allegations, prison warden Angela Gordon insists the prison is “not here to punish, that was the court's job.”
“We are here to ensure the inmates' safety, and ensure that they are returned to society in a better status than they were when they came to us,” she said during a telephone interview with RT.
However, the women's attorney, David A. Frankel, has called the prison's bluff.
“In the Deep South of the United States, there has been a history of ignoring people's civil rights. The Department of Corrections is still in that mentality of 'Listen, we're gonna do what we want to do. Don't question us,'” he told RT.
“And these officers feel the power to take advantage of people because they know the department isn't going to come in and investigate properly, and they believe no one will believe the inmates anyway,” Frankel added.
The astonishing suicide of Bernadette Gregory
LOWELL, FL, July 25, 2009 — A 42-year-old inmate at a state prison for women died last week in an apparent suicide.
The Lowell Annex, part of the larger Lowell Correctional Institution, is north of Ocala. Bernadette Gregory was serving a 14-month sentence at the annex for robbery, according to records from the Department of Corrections and the Marion County court clerk.
Gregory died on Wednesday. Authorities are investigating, and the official cause of death has not yet been determined, but DOC spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said suicide is suspected.
Lowell inmates come from all parts of Florida, but Gregory had local roots. She was from Marion County and a local judge sentenced her to the prison term.
The Lowell Annex opened in 2002. Lowell Correctional Institution's roots date back to 1956.
LOWELL, FL, Dec 13, 2009 --- Bernadette Gregory was getting out of prison in eight months and planning her wedding when she was found hanging in a cell at Florida's Lowell Correctional Institution.
Prison authorities say Gregory, 42, tied a double knot in a sheet, twisted it several times around her top bunk, looped the other end around her neck and hanged herself.
Despite relying on a wheelchair to get around, she did all of this in 11 minutes — while she was handcuffed, a detail the Department of Corrections' investigative summary mentions only in passing.
Gregory's 2009 death is one of many that don't seem to add up but that have nevertheless been tucked away in the department's files, categorized as suicides, homicides, accidents or natural deaths.
With 320 inmate deaths tallied as of Dec 9, 2009, Florida's prison system is on track to have the deadliest year in its history.
Threatened after release
But the fight against the state may not be an easy one. In fact, Harper said she felt forced to flee to Texas after she was followed by a man and her house was broken into. She speculated that the State of Florida could have been behind the incidents.
“I don't know if it was the state, I don't know who it was. I have no idea. The only thing that I could register in my mind is 'Crystal, you're going up against the State of Florida and you're still in Florida.’ Why wouldn't they try to hurt me or kill me?”
Frankel speculates that the case will take several years to resolve.