Illustration by Ingrid Wu

Each morning, Debra Bennett woke up in her bunk and ticked another day off her nearly 20 year sentence. On a particularly bad morning, halfway through her sentence, she etched the number 3,561 into her forearm — it gave her hope.

In 2002, the Palm Beach Gardens native had gotten hooked on painkillers after multiple surgeries and health complications. By the time her doctor revoked her prescription, Bennett was addicted and desperate enough to seek out opioids in other ways. After a few months, she was arrested for drug trafficking. She fought her case for almost six years before she wound up at Lowell Correctional Institute in Marion County, where she would stay for the rest of her sentence.

But March 1, 2018 was a new morning; Bennett was finally a free woman. The petite 51-year-old sported a pair of red Converse and a standard-issue gray-and-blue uniform as she was escorted to the prison gates. A friend greeted her on the other side.

Bennett, a tough woman — far tougher than her slim frame and disarming smile would lead a stranger to believe — worked as a law clerk, a teacher’s aid and a landscaper throughout her incarceration. But still, none of her odd jobs prepared her for life outside prison. After 20 years, she was estranged from most of her family. Given her status as a drug felon, she wasn’t eligible to apply for food stamps. With only $50 to her name, she needed to find a job, fast.

Unlike many convicted felons, Bennett was able to find a job in her hometown after only 17 days. In search of people to connect with, she began documenting her transition back to society over Facebook.

“Left for the bus stop in P.B.G. @ 5:45 a.m. so I can be at work in Lake Worth by 10:00 a.m.

Am I mad…..not at all…it’s my 1st day of WORK,” she wrote in one of her first posts.

Bennett started receiving friend requests on Facebook from all different types of people from her past — high school friends, distant family and formerly incarcerated women across Florida. She watched as her two worlds merged online, and friends from prison commented back and forth with her friends from high school.

Eventually, she caught word of a Facebook group for former Lowell inmates. She quickly joined, eager to reconnect with the only people she felt could understand her trauma, her daily struggles, and her simultaneous amazement and confusion at the latest technology. She also wanted to keep tabs on the ongoings inside the prison, which are notoriously brutal.

But after reading a few posts, Bennett realized former inmates were almost outnumbered in the Facebook group by family members and friends. She wanted to find a way to connect with women on the inside.

“The girls who were on there, you could tell they wanted something more,” Bennett said. “People were hungry to find out about Lowell.”

Lowell Correctional Institution, a gray compound that lies quietly between I-75 and sprawling green pastures, is just a forty minute drive south of Gainesville. Opened in April 1956 as the first women’s prison in Florida, Lowell is one of the largest women’s prisons in the country today, housing around 3,000 inmates.

People were hungry to find out about Lowell.

For incarcerated women in Florida who often bounce from one facility to another as they await sentencing, Lowell’s reputation precedes it. For years, the prison has been affiliated with reports of inhumane conditions, such as inmates being forced to beg for basic necessities like toilet paper or menstrual products, scrub floors covered in raw sewage, and paint over mold on walls.

“All of the prisons are really, really bad,” Bennett said. “But Lowell — it’s the exception.”

Bennett had heard of Lowell’s reputation as she awaited sentencing in county jail, but when she got to the prison in 2006, it was still a reality check.

During her time, she said that basic necessities like toilet paper, as well as eggs, milk and fruit, were not regularly provided to inmates, though the Florida Department of Corrections press secretary wrote the opposite in an email.

Over the years, Bennett watched as state funding for prisons was cut or outsourced to private, for-profit companies. As a result, programs that makeprison bearable and life outside survivable forinmates were winnowed. These included programs that treat substance abuse and mental health, as well as resources, like makeup, for Lowell’s cosmetology classes — which former inmates say officers are not keen on encouraging women to attend.

“They fought us on it,” said Tracy Golly, who got her cosmetology license at Lowell in 2003. “They would say that we couldn’t go to class because an inspection was coming and they needed all inmates to clean up… They’d have us scrubbing things and cleaning on our hands and knees.”

And then there was the abuse. In 2015, more than 36 former and current inmates at Lowell spoke to the Miami Herald about sexual abuse and misconduct they had experienced at the hands of correctional officers. They also reported officers spitting in their face, slamming them into walls, destroying personal items like family pictures, and pouring coffee or bleach on them. Even more angering: In subsequent Herald reports, Lowell officials could not produce any protocol for disciplining guards who were accused of abuse. Instead, officers were simply transferred to other facilities. Complaints were dismissed without investigation.

But inmates who reported abuse were punished. According to the Herald, the retaliatory tactics at Lowell crystallized into a clear pattern over the years: Inmates who spoke up for themselves were transferred, sent to confinement, met with violence.

One former inmate, Rachel Kalfin, said she was put in solitary for 165 days after reporting a sexual assault by a guard.

“They called me a liar, and then my mail to my family was being thrown away,” she said at a Department of Justice meeting in August 2018. “I have friends who are still there who are afraid to speak up because they’re afraid their parents aren’t going to get their mail.”

In 2013, the FDC received grant funding to purchase additional cameras statewide. That year, cameras were installed around Lowell to help with the reporting of crimes, Prison Rape Elimination Act (P.R.E.A.) issues and abuse of public funds. Inmates were provided with a tip line they could call to report these matters. But the women quickly became skeptical once they realized they were being watched, and as long as that was the case, retaliation was possible.

“There is no safe way to report anything in that prison,”
Bennett said.

Adjusting to life on the other side, Bennett saw that Facebook could be a valuable tool for holding Lowell accountable. So in August 2018, five months after she left Lowell, Bennett created a Facebook group to exchange information about the prison, advocate for women on the inside and support former inmates on the outside. She named it “Soldiers on the INSIDE a force on the OUTSIDE.”

Today the page has over 500 members.

“It’s a great networking system,” Bennett said, “but more than that, it’s a safe place for us to go.”

On a daily basis, Bennett is in touch with around 70 current inmates, whom she calls her “prison children,” via a system called JPay. While the technology is a rudimentary form of e-mail that isn’t connected to the larger internet and requires a fee to use, it allows inmates to exchange messages, videos and photos with others on the outside.

Through the group, Bennett has connected with a network of other prison reform activists who have ties to Lowell. Kim Lawrance, whose 19-year-old daughter is currently at Florida Women’s Reception Center directly across the road from Lowell, also runs a Facebook group for incarcerated women and their families. She said the page is useful because it allows her to relay information her daughter tells her about other inmates to families that don’t have access to the inside.

“It’s like a big dark space in there,” Kim Lawrance said.

“It’s like [Lowell] just wants to be left in the dark, but we
need to know what’s going on in there.”

There is no safe way to report anything in that prison.

Many of the women currently incarcerated in Lowell try to participate in Bennett’s advocacy work from the inside by sending photos and videos for rallies and prison reform events and by passing on intel. But they do so at great risk, because correctional officers still regularly use violence, despite the ongoing Department of Justice investigation.

“They want to do so much,” Bennett said. “There’s lots of people who want to be involved in the advocacy, but they’re going to be retaliated against. So we have to watch what we say, because they will be shipped.”

Still, Bennett is optimistic her work is paying off. In February, she got word that two correctional officers, Adrian Puckett and Kurtis Mitchell, had thrown an inmate to the ground, knocking out three of her upper teeth and slicing her bottom lip in half. A report
approved by Puckett justified the use of force because the inmate was “physically resisting him, attempting to and subsequently breaking his grasp and not complying with his lawful orders.”

But Bennett was skeptical — she immediately contacted reporters and an attorney for the woman. The correctional officers were investigated. It was uncovered the attack was premeditated: Mitchell had stated the inmate “needs to have an accident” and that she “disrespected a captain and needs to fall.”

“Lowell cops Puckett & Mitchell were arrested in the last 2 hours,” Bennett posted in her group a few days after the incident. “A reporter just called and told me.”

Former inmates commented on the post in droves. The general reaction was hopeful disbelief. “I think they went so long without anything happening that they think they’re untouchable,” one person commented. “It’s good to see they’re not.”

“Bingo,” Bennett replied.

Crystal Chisholm, 27, knows firsthand the value of an advocate on the outside. When she was an inmate in Lowell, she wrote back and forth with a pen pal, using code words to talk about what was really happening inside the prison. “I don’t want what’s going on in there to be forgotten,” Chisholm said. “I gotta be that support for somebody else.”

Since her release last June, Chisholm has started focusing on helping women who struggle with substance abuse and addiction. She started attending programs and workshops, and joined Bennett’s group to connect with other inmates who are also interested in advocacy.

“You can’t get through it alone,” she said.

Bennett spends her time immersed in her prison reform work when she’s not working the graveyard shift at IHOP or answering phones at a call center. But over a year on the other side, she is still getting used to freedom. The nearly 20 years in prison took their mental toll: She still gets surprised when her phone talks to her or she sees a TV mounted on the wall. At home, she stockpiles soap and
toilet paper, forgetting she can buy more when she wants.

“You become institutionalized,” she said.

But she’s doing small things to remind herself that she is on the outside. Every two weeks, she paints her nails a different color chosen by women inside Lowell, because they’re not allowed to paint their nails on the inside. Right now, her nails are pink and black.

Bennett hopes to one day open up her own transition home for formerly incarcerated women in Florida. She’s found that while there are countless halfway homes across the state for men, there aren’t as many options for women. She knows just how difficult it is to build a new life from scratch, and how drastically that quality of life can improve with the help of others.

“We were one in there, but we’re more than one out
here,” she said. •