FORMER INMATES OF LOWELL CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTE, THE LARGEST WOMEN’S PRISON IN THE COUNTRY, RECOUNT DETAILS OF SYSTEMATIC CORRUPTION AND FRAUD, PHYSICAL, SEXUAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL ABUSE, INADEQUATE MEDICAL TREATMENT AND SANITATION AND SYMPTOMS OF PTSD.

Gwen Staples. Illustrations by Ingrid Wu.

Gwen Staples

GWEN IS 35 YEARS OLD. SHE SPENT FOUR MONTHS IN THE PREGNANCY DORM AT LOWELL. SHE SAID IT WAS COMMON FOR CLASSIFICATIONS OFFICERS TO PROPOSE WOMEN PUT THEIR BABIES UP FOR ADOPTION IN EXCHANGE FOR COMMISSARY.

When I left county jail, we were transported in a van to Lowell. I had a meal at 3 a.m. in the county jail. We arrived at Lowell compound [at] about 11 a.m. in the morning. The next time I had a meal from 3 a.m. was almost 7 p.m. I won’t forget it because it was hot dogs and I was so excited because I was so hungry. And I’m like, oh, thank God, this is something I can eat. But before I even ate, they had us sitting in this intake area. You know, standard prison intake: you strip, you squat, you cough. You do paperwork, you do triage and blood work. It’s standard procedure.

Then we had to go back and forth to these buildings and do a psych evaluation and different things like that, all in the middle of a major thunderstorm, talking thunder and lightning. And it was me, and there was another pregnant girl and then a Y.O., which is a youth offender. I was six months pregnant, and the other girl was probably about the same, she was maybe a little further along, maybe about seven months. They had us running across the compound in the pouring rain and thunder and lightning. And I mean, it was like, oh, my gosh, what if I fall? And they said, if you fall or if you lag behind, you’re gonna get shot. And I said what? And the sergeant that was escorting us around the compound, pointed up to the guard tower that sits right in the middle of the annex. And he said, ‘You see that tower? There’s guards with guns, and if you lag behind or you fall, you’re gonna get shot.’ And I’m like, ‘oh, my god. This is day one.’ …

I remember laying down as I was sitting against the wall on a cement bench. And I’m like, I just need to lay down for a minute. And no sooner then I laid down, I heard a door shut and I didn’t even think anything of it. I mean, it’s almost a 16-hour day. I’m just, you know, I’m just laying down in medical waiting for count so we can go to our dorms still soaking wet and I mean, like dripping soaking wet. And a sergeant, and I don’t remember his name, but he was tall and he was thin, and he came and stood over top of me, and he swung an umbrella, a soaking wet umbrella, so hard that I heard the whip of it right past my ear. It hit the wall behind my head and water flew all over me, and he said, ‘inmate, get the fuck up.’ Excuse my language. And he said, ‘if you don’t get the f— up right now, you’re going to confinement. You don’t lay down in medical.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Are you serious?’ And he looked at me and pulled out his handcuffs. And so I sat up and he said, ‘Not a good way to start your stay, inmate’ and he walked away laughing. And I’m just like,’ oh boy, this is going to be awesome.’ You know, very sarcastically. This is not going to be awesome.

Diadenis Suarez

DIADENIS IS 44 YEARS OLD. SHE SPENT NEARLY 22 YEARS IN THE FLORIDA PRISON SYSTEM. TODAY SHE’S AN ACTIVIST FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM AND WORKS AS AN ADMINISTRATIVE COORDINATOR AT AN INK MANUFACTURING COMPANY.

One of my first DRs [disciplinary reports] was because an officer told me to take my clothes off for him, and I wouldn’t. And he wrote me a D.R. for disobeying a verbal order. If an officer gives you an order, you have to do it. It’s rule No. 1 in the rulebook. You are to follow any verbal order given to you by a staff member.

Well, there’s such a thing as a lawful order, and then there’s an unlawful order, and technically, if an officer gives you an unlawful order, which is like, ‘Okay, have sex with me,’ then you don’t have to do that. Correct? But this was back in the early, you know, in the ‘90s, when I first went prison, and it was the ‘good ‘ol boy’ system. And I went in front of the captain, and I told the captain: ‘He’s taking me to jail because I wouldn’t take my clothes off in front of him.’ And the captain looked at me and said, ‘Did he tell you to change your clothes?’ And I said ‘Yes he did.’ And he was like, ‘And you didn’t do it?’ And I said, ‘I told him to go get a female sergeant.’ If you want an officer to watch me, then get a female officer. He says, ‘He told you change and you refused to change, you’re going to jail.’ And so they sent me to [solitary] confinement. And I spent 65 days in confinement because they found other reasons to write me a D.R. because they were mad. And it was because I wouldn’t take my clothes off in front of the officer.  

Debra Bennett.

 

Debra Bennett

Debra is 47 years old. She spent early two decades years in prison, most of it at Lowell.

It’s probably wrong, but I make sure that everybody knows that I am right out of prison. It drives my mom crazy, but I think it’s really the only thing that explains me because I did so many years in prison. They say when you do drugs and stuff, it stunts your growth. Prison definitely stopped me from maturing like I would have if I were out here. I definitely feel like I am an immature 51-year-old person. I don’t feel like I’m 51 years old. I don’t feel like I’m on the same level as my friends from high school. I’m in touch with many, many, many of them, and I feel like I’m their little sister. Definitely stunted like mental growth, for sure, so I tell everybody that I’m right out of prison, so maybe they’ll understand me. If they know I just came from prison, they’re not gonna be mad if I tell them, listen: Don’t be mad about your job. At least you have one.’ Or ‘so what you got stuck in traffic?’ I didn’t see a car for so many years. I almost got hit by a car because I walked straight into the street because I don’t have to look for cars in prison.

You forget so much stuff. If I don’t make it clear to everybody around me that I just got out of prison, they’re not gonna understand why I look at a flat-screen TV, and I’m in total awe because it’s hanging on a wall. Or if you tell me I can copy and paste all the stuff on the computer or ask the computer questions, and it’ll talk back to me, how I can either look dumbfounded because I have no idea what you’re talking about or I’m just in total awe. So that’s just the first thing I announce myself as. It might not be the right thing, but that’s the first thing that comes out of my mouth.”

Tammy Seely

Tammy is 58 years old. She spent four years at Lowell.

Attorneys have absolutely no idea what goes on once you go behind the bars, once you go and become part of the DOC. I was still in a high level of pain from the accident that I was in, and they were like, ‘No, there’s doctors, and you’ll be fine, and you’ll get care. And you can deal with the death of this person,’ and all these different kinds of things, [which] again, they have no idea. What I walked into was, for lack of a better way to say it, a totalitarian government. They are their own government in there. Especially at Lowell. They do their own thing. They make their own rules. They polish a turd when the powers that be come around. When the people above them show up, they expect the very people that they’ve neglected or abused to help cover up the fact that they’re not doing what’s expected of them every single day.

Abuse comes in so many different forms: older people were neglected. People with disabilities were ridiculed. If you happen to have been cute, then there was interest shown in you by one or two officers or sergeants. And then the other ones treated you like crap because of the interest the other ones were showing you. I don’t think there’s too many people that aren’t at risk in some capacity or another.

You know, the military breaks you down in order to build you back up in their image. This doesn’t. This just breaks you down. There’s no support system. There’s no true help. Being a commonsense person, I realize that, you know, officers or not, I can tell you this — I’ll never go back to prison again, ever, whether it be because I’m good, and I don’t break the law, or because I’d probably kill myself first.”

Kelly Rowland.

Kelly Rowland

Kelly is 31 years old. She spent nearly five years at Lowell.

There was one time I was in [the] dorm on the main unit, and there was this older lady who I guess had Alzheimer’s or something like that. She was probably in her 60s. She had came from the streets, and she was, I think, a streetwalker before going to prison. One morning she has missed pill line or something like that, and she ended up having a seizure. The officers didn’t call medical for her; they just let her lay there in her bed after she had a seizure. She had urinated all over herself, and they just left her there.

Women that have gone to prison before, they have C’s, D’s and F’s on their tags. And then they get to a point where they have all these medical issues. When it’s time to help them, nobody does because all they see is a number, how many times they’ve been to prison. The first time you go to prison, you get a zero. The second time you get a A, and then it would be a slash and [inaudible] number. They don’t treat you like you’re human when you go there. And then, you know, you’re deprived of your basic needs. God forbid you ever need anything from them because it’s just a mission to get anything from them — simple things, like a pack of Tylenol when you have a headache or sanitary napkins. Or just the way that some of the male officers will talk to you: They automatically assume that if you’re in prison — you made one, simple mistake — that you’re trash. I have been called everything but my name over the my whole time there. I don’t remember really ever being called Kelly. It was either Rowland or — excuse my language — bitch, slut, whore. Things like that.”

Amanda Hunter

Amanda is 27 years old. She spent one year and a day at Lowell.

So, we were walking to lock and the officer was holding my sleeve. And he was kind of pushing me along, and he pulled my arm back, and his hand slipped from my sleeve. And so I didn’t do anything. I just turned and looked at him because I already knew what was coming. And he grabs my shirt by my shoulder area and he grabbed my arm and he kicked my legs out. Handcuffs behind my back, kicked my legs out.

And then I was still standing, so he was like, you know, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ Like basically, wondering why I didn’t drop. And I brought myself down to the ground, and I laid down. I got to my knees and he shoved me down. But he kicked me so hard that I have nerve damage in the front of my leg. There was an indent from his boot. I wrote statements. I wrote grievances. I wrote medical because when I came to prison, I had just gotten into a car accident in which I fractured my neck. And when he took me down to the ground, the first thing he did was put his knee in my back, and his arm, all his weight, into my neck. And I asked him, and I said, ‘Listen, I have a fractured neck. Could you shift your weight?’ And when the captain came out. I asked the captain, ‘Could you please have your officer shift his weight from my neck? I have a fractured neck. I was just in a car accident.’ And the captain told me to ‘stop resisting.’ Now, mind you, I’m handcuffed behind my back, and I’m lying on the ground. I’m not moving. I can’t go anywhere. He says to stop resisting, or I’ll be lucky if his officer doesn’t snap it.”  

Cory Carter

Cory is 37 years old. She spent four and a half years at Lowell. She now works for a domestic violence nonprofit.

It’s like going to war. We try to erase it as much as possible and move forward, but people, people don’t understand. I got into a relationship, and he would roll over to cuddle in the middle of the night, and I would jump out of the bed and and start hyperventilating and crying, because it’s hard, you know, to cope. You work it out, man. It’s not easy when you’re that damaged. I came home and I went immediately to my father’s house, which was a bad idea. And I was standing in front of the kitchen cabinets, looking at the dishes, and he’s looking at me like, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I don’t know which dish to use. I’ve been eating out of the same one for so many years.’ It’s all these choices and it’s hard. It was a big adjustment, going to the grocery store, or driving a car. I would pull into Publix and couldn’t get out of the car. It’s taking a long time and a little medication.

There is hope. There is hope and there is a possibility for change. And some people let this define them, and that’s where they make the mistake. It’s very hard when you go into a job interview, and that question is right there: ‘Have you ever had adjudication withheld, have you ever been convicted of a felony and misdemeanor?’ That opens up an array of stuff that prohibits you from finding gainful employment. If you tell the truth, you’re a scumbag. If you lie, you’re a liar and a scumbag. I would really like to see that stricken off of employment applications. But I believe that we paid our debt to society by doing the time, but we still pay it out here, you know? Regardless of what people think, we still pay it. It’s very hard.” 

 

Jennifer Pinkney.

 Jennifer Pinkney

Jennifer is 35 years old. She spent four and a half years at Lowell.

Iused to mark my days down on the calendar, just like number down my days and how much I got left. They got down to 30 days. That’s where the trouble really hit. They were telling me they could put me in confinement where I won’t go home on my release date.
I did 30 days [in confinement] one time and I did three days one time… I’d rather done the rest of my time [in confinement]. The rest of my time until I went home. Because when you in confinement, it’s away from all the general population. When you’re in general population, they can really do anything to you. In confinement, they gotta ask permission from the warden to pop your doors if you’re not coming out with a child.”

Crystal Chisholm

Crystal is 27 years old. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison at the age of 17 before being re-sentenced and released after almost 10 years at Lowell. She’s now a leader in her community supporting people who struggle with addiction and is publishing an autobiography.

I‘m blessed I don’t have to wake up to those people anymore. I mean, I’m so lucky to be out honestly, you know. It gets overwhelming. I still cry about it. But it makes me want to speak more about what’s going on. Because now that I’m out here, because I grew up in the system, I knew nothing but prison. I’ve never lived a real life. Now I’m out here, and I’m learning how to really live, and how to have a real job and how to pay real bills and everything like that. It’s overwhelming. But it’s also a wonderful feeling because I made it. I did it. I conquered the demons. That’s how I look at Lowell: It’s nothing but a place full of demons.

I mean, it’s corrupted. Lowell is corruption. If a person is being sent to Lowell, and they don’t have a strong mind, they’re not going to make it in there. They’re going to fall right into the system and into the hands of nasty officers. My thing is, is I would just tell people, you got to stay away from the officers. They’re just nasty. They’re cruel. They’re mean. They’ll pick fights with you. They’ll actually fight you. They don’t care if you’re a woman or not. It’s not a system. Honestly, a lot of people, all of us felt like we were just human housing. This is just one big human warehouse where we were all kind of just subjected to being treated like trash. We were nothing. We were not even a part of the world.”  

Tracy Golly.

Tracy Golly

Tracy is 47 years old. Tracy works as a hairstylist. She got her license in 2003 at the cosmetology program at Lowell.

My teacher Linda Thompson was the most amazing teacher. I didn’t think so at the time. But now looking back, the things that I learned — her holding me back when she did and pushing me when she needed to — was probably the biggest blessing I ever had because she helped me get a career. Lowell fought me on it the whole way and fought her on it. We definitely had to keep the cosmetology program going, and to be able to go to our classes was a very big challenge because, as I said, they fought us on it. … They would say that we couldn’t go to class because an inspection was coming, and they needed all inmates to clean up their mess and cover up the bad things that were happening. They’d have us scrubbing things and cleaning things on our hands and knees. There’s been many times that we’ve had human feces all over us from cleaning up because they have a pipe burst. She would go to the higher-ups and the warden and say, ‘You know, my girls need to be in class. This is what they’re there for’ — basically threatened to expose them if they didn’t leave us out of their coverups and let us stay in class. She put herself out there to keep us in class and make us be able to take the state board.
None of us appreciated it back then, but we appreciated it afterwards. Or at least I know I did. And like, when I took my state board, and she was getting ready to tell everybody — and I get choked up every time I think about it — our results, she called us all into the office, and she sat there for a minute. And then she looked at me first and said, ‘Tracy. I knew you could do it.’ I was the first one.”


Note: Lowell Correctional Institution, located 35 minutes south of Gainesville on a backcountry road in Marion County that runs parallel to Interstate 75, is the largest women’s prison in the country. In late 2018, after years of news reports that Lowell harbors a culture of sexual assault and abuse, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into possible constitutional violations at the prison. About 100 people — some former inmates wearing shirts with “I Survived Lowell” written in glitter — showed up to the DOJ’s first community meeting in Ocala. Many of the women are turning to advocacy after their experience at the prison. •