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Florida women’s prison is nightmare as prisoners endure humiliation, poor medical care, rip-offsOctober 21, 2016
By: Jack Strickland
Arriving at sleepy Lowell, Florida is a rude awakening. The little country town seems lost in a time warp. It hasn’t changed much in 50 years. It is the home of a small post office, a convenience store, a four way stop intersection on Old Highway 441, and a large prison complex and fire college.
Lowell Correctional Institution is Florida’s major prison for women. It dates back to the 1950’s when Florida’s men and women prisoners were separated. Prior to that time women prisoners were quartered at the West Unit of the Florida State Prison at Raiford.
The Florida Women’s Reception Center is part of the Lowell prison network. It is the first stop for Florida’s women who are sentenced to prison time. It seems hidden, out of sight and out of mind, across the main drag from the main Lowell prison.
At first glance, as new arrivals drive in, the reception center appears to be a quaint complex located in the middle of a large horse pasture where dozens of horses leisurely graze. As the buildings come into view the guard towers and concentric razor wire fences give mute testimony to the fact that it is a very forbidding place.
New prisoners usually arrive in sheriff’s cars, county jail vans, or prison buses. The women are normally securely chained. They wear handcuffs that are tightly anchored to a snug waist belt. Their feet are shackled together. They walk with a shuffle as they exit the vehicle as armed guards bark orders. They are instructed to remove their clothes and get totally “nekkid.”
Then they are ordered to squat and “show your pink.” Body cavity searches begin. It is a very degrading and humiliating experience. Ex-cons who have endured the continuing experience during their period of incarceration say their psyche is permanently scarred. They say they may never fully recover from the trauma cause by the routine.
Welcome to Lowell. Some prisoners call it Low-Hell. It is the end of the line for some prisoners with life sentences who will never leave. It is a life- changing experience for everyone who comes through the gate. It is a very brutal and violent world.
Almost all prisoners are impacted negatively. Most prisoners who ultimately leave Lowell seem to depart the institution in far worse shape than they were in when they arrived.
Security is the main focus at Lowell. The main objective is to keep prisoners on their side of the razor wire. There seems to be no meaningful rehabilitation at Lowell. Prison educational and vocational programs have been severely cut in recent years due to budget constraints. Prisoners say the few programs that remain are a big joke.
They say they function in name only to create a few jobs and put on a facade aimed at making a positive impression on the DOC’s annual report. The citizens of Florida pay a high price for this condition. The recidivism rate for Florida prisoners is very high. Most prisoners are rearrested within five years after being released from a Florida prison.
New arrivals at Lowell go through a brief orientation. The orientation is a sobering presentation. New inmates are given their prison number. It will follow them for the remainder of their lives. On this day a Death Row inmate is brought in from the main unit a mile away.
She gave a talk that is captivating. The new prisoners were on the edge of their seats, hanging on her every word. She told them her life story and gave a road map of her life experiences that led to her being condemned to die in Florida’s death chamber. She says she knows she will never leave prison alive.
She tells the new prisoners many of them are on the road she traveled many years ago. She challenges them to get off that road and choose a different course. Or, she says, they can continue as they are going and she will see them on Death Row-if she is still alive when they arrive there. She points out that her death warrant could be signed and she could be executed at any time. Her presentation had a powerful impact on the new prisoners.
The new prisoners are told by staff that some states offer rehabilitation and individual betterment programs for prisoners. They are told that Florida is not one of those states. The new inmates are advised to do their time and to expect nothing from the state or the Florida Department of Corrections.
Florida prisons are big business. There seems to be a real effort to keep them filled to capacity so they will generate maximum income for companies who run them. There is a trend to privatize prisons and all prison operations. Medical, dental, commissary, phone calls, and food services are among the prison functions that are farmed out.
The lucrative contracts to provide those services go to contractors with friends in high places. The contractors seem to be making a fortune. The process requires the prisoners, their families, and the state to pay much higher prices. The biggest losers seem to be the people of the State of Florida who get stuck with cleaning up the mess caused by privatization.
The companies who are awarded contracts to provide medical and dental care for prisoners are paid a flat yearly fee to provide the care for more than 100,000 state prisoners who are currently in custody in Florida prisons.
The contractors are paid the same amount whither they treat one prisoner one time or 100,000 prisoners multiple times. The contractors’ top priority seems to be their bottom line and their profits. Prisoners complain that it is almost impossible to get medical and dental care.
It seems clear that prisoners in Florida do not receive adequate medical or dental care. Several prisoner deaths that seem to be the result of medical malpractice are currently under investigation.
The Florida DOC reports that 346 inmates died in Florida prisons in 2014. The state has recently changed the privatized company who provided DOC medical care. It seems clear that the DOC is trying to do a better job in providing medical care for prisoners. There is little doubt that major changes need to be made.
Prisoners say that inmate dental care is a joke. They say when they report to medical with a tooth ache or other dental problem they are placed on a waiting list. They say it usually takes months, even years, before they get to see a dentist for corrective action. By the time they do get to see a dentist the tooth with the problem has usually deteriorated to the point that it has to be pulled.
That seems to be the objective of the prison dental program. It is much cheaper and less time consuming for the dentist to pull teeth than to fix them. Some prisoners who are familiar with the process want their offending teeth pulled when it first becomes a problem.
But, it is unethical for a dentist to pull a healthy tooth. The prisoner is forced to endure months of pain while the tooth deteriorates to the point that it is appropriate, and ethical, to make the extraction. Most Florida inmates leave prison with missing teeth and with an unhealthy mouth.
Corruption in Florida’s privatized prison system is not new. In 2006 The DOC’s top man, Secretary of the DOC James V. Crosby, was convicted of receiving $135,000 in bribes for awarding prized prison contracts to vendors who ripped off the state, the prisoners, and the prisoner’s families. Crosby was sentenced to eight years in federal prison. He has served that sentence.
Crosby’s right hand man, Allen Clark, was also convicted and sentenced to prison for receiving kickbacks from contractors doing business with the DOC.
In the wake of the Crosby-Clark scandal more than a dozen lower ranking prison officials were charged and arrested. Many more have been fired. In the past ten years several people have held the position of Sccretary of the Flordia Department of Corrections in what has resembled a game of musical chairs.
Secretary Julie Jones currently sits on the hot seat. She seems determined to clean up the Florida Department of Corrections. She has held the office since December 2014. The jury is still out as to whether she can succeed where those who have proceeded her have failed so miserably.
The prisoners arriving at Lowell do not seem to be concerned with the politics of the DOC in Tallahassee. Their concern is they can not get adequate medical and dental care. They think the food served in the privatized mess hall is substandard. They say the phones and commissary are ripoffs.
Their concerns seem valid. Prisoner calls home are more expensive than in other states. In West Virginia a 15 minute call from a prisoner will cost his family 48 cents. In Florida the same call will cost $3. That is a big improvement. When Cosby was the Florida DOC Secretary the same call cost the prisoner’s family $28.
The prices at the prison commissary are attention grabbing. A soup that Walmart sells for 19 cents costs a Florida prisoner 86 cents. A chicken sandwich you can buy at Wendy’s for a dollar will cost a Florida prisoner $4. A bottle of shampoo Walgreens sells for $3.99 will cost a Florida prisoner almost $8.
It would seem that prices would be cheaper in prison commissaries than in retail stores. Prison commissaries in Florida do a twenty million dollar annual business. The privatized company that runs them uses a state owned building and does not pay rent or utilities. They use convict labor that they pay much less than minimum wage.
The sole reason for the sky-high prices the vendors charge seems to be to generate high profits for the well connected businessmen who are awarded the contracts. And they seem to be able to get away with charging exorbitant prices and fees with impunity.
It should come as no surprise that there is a move on in Tallahassee by some in the business and political community to privatize more prisons and their services. Prisons are big business and they are very profitable for those in the political in crowd.
The beat goes on at Lowell. The prisoners do not seem to concern themselves with the politics of state government. They face more severe challenges. They strive to survive each day of life in the penitentiary. Their goal seems to be to leave Lowell alive and with some degree of sanity.