Bartered sex, corruption and cover-ups behind bars in nation’s largest women’s prison
by Julie K. Brown, Miami Herald
Casey Hodge stepped from the prison van, trembling under the weight of her thick handcuffs and leg shackles. The slight 25-year-old was led with a group of other women into a small room and ordered to strip naked.
“Show me your pink,” said a female corrections officer, instructing her to squat and cough so that they could peer between her legs and certify that she wasn’t concealing anything.
Hodge, who has been legally blind since she was 16, then was told to remove her glass eye. “They wanted to make sure I wasn’t hiding anything in my socket,’’ she remembers. So she pulled it out with her fingers. The officers nearly fell off their chairs, she said, mocking her like children and pretending to vomit.
“I felt like I was a kid, being bullied all over again,” said Hodge, who had never been in trouble with the law before her arrest on drug trafficking charges in 2012.
Hodge once dreamed of growing up to be a photographer. Now she was inmate No. 155778, sentenced to three years to be served at Lowell Correctional Institution, a state prison that houses the five women on Florida’s Death Row — and has the distinction of being the largest women’s prison in the United States.
With 2,696 inmates in a sprawling maze of drab gray, un-airconditioned buildings, the institution sits amid rolling green hills and pristine thoroughbred horse farms in Central Florida. But the women who have done time here say Lowell’s quiet veneer belies the corruption, torment and sexual abuse within.
They say that over the past decade, the abuse has become intolerable. Documents show inmates have complained that officers from the Florida Department of Corrections spit in their faces, threaten to slam them into concrete and call them whores, bitches and porch monkeys. They say male prison staffers tramp through the showers, make them flash their breasts on a whim and force them to beg for basic necessities, like toilet paper, soap and sanitary napkins.
But perhaps the worst indignity of all, women say, is that the officers — both male and female — use their positions of power to pressure inmates to have sex and to perform indecent acts. Women alleged in complaints, filed between 2011 and May 2015, that the sex happens in bathrooms, closets, the laundry and officers’ stations. Sometimes officers go into dorms in the middle of the night, taking women to isolated areas of the prison, they say.
Many women comply because they feel they have no choice; others call it a matter of survival. At Lowell, inmates say, those who yield to the officers’ demands are often shielded from abuse. They can be rewarded with soap and sanitary pads, cigarettes, drugs and money. They get free-world food, like cheeseburgers, or meager feminine accoutrements that make them feel more human, such as makeup and perfume.
The inmates who don’t comply with officers’ demands, however, say they are harassed and humiliated; they forfeit plum job and bunk assignments. Often, they are threatened with “confinement” — a separation from the general population that isolates them and tests their sanity. They can also lose their belongings, and the privilege of visits from their families.
In a statement, Julie Jones, secretary for the Department of Corrections, acknowledged that prior to her taking over the department in January, Lowell was “poorly managed’’ and lacked proper leadership. She replaced the warden, fired an assistant warden and hired more than 100 new officers. In recent months, she has made policy changes and says that officers are now being held accountable.
The new warden, Angela Gordon, and other FDC officials contend that the alleged abuse — physical, mental and sexual — is not as widespread as inmates suggest. Prisoners, they say, tend to lie and manipulate to get officers in trouble or to get something they want.
“Yes some of them lie sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that they lie all the time,” said Marion County Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway.
Ridgway said there is clearly sexual activity happening at Lowell “akin to prostitution,” but gauging how rampant it is can be difficult because much of the sex is consensual. But that doesn’t mean a crime hasn’t been committed, he said. It is a third-degree felony for an officer to have sex with an inmate.
Ridgway said he doesn’t have enough staff to investigate Lowell because the problems — and the prison itself — are too vast.
“Some of these issues and complaints are well founded, and there are things that are happening that clearly are illegal and should not have happened,” the prosecutor said.
Aaron Johnson, a Vero Beach attorney who has represented Lowell inmates, said that consent, or lack thereof, is difficult to define when guards control every aspect of a woman’s life.
“What I saw was that some of the girls were truly victims of rape and sexual assault and battery. I believed them when they told me it was unsolicited, uninvited and a nightmare,” he said.
Nancy G. Abudu, legal director for the ACLU of Florida, said the organization has interviewed several women from Lowell over the past few months who allege that they have been “coerced” to have sex through threats and intimidation.
“We are looking into whether these allegations are not only a violation of civil rights, but an international violation of human rights,’’ she said.
“The so-called punishment for an officer who rapes an inmate is to get transferred to another facility. Florida’s prisons allow officers to rape women in prison because the inmates aren’t considered to have any rights,” she said.
For Hodge, having to squat naked and pluck out her eye was nothing compared with what would follow. In a formal statement she gave to the Florida Department of Corrections’ inspector general, she alleged that in 2013 she was tormented by a sergeant who stalked her on the compound, sent her long, sexually explicit letters and pressured her into having sex by threatening to put her into confinement and extend her prison stay through loss of gain time — time off for good behavior.
“We are nothing but animals to them,” said Hodge, who filed the complaint against the sergeant, William Oellrich, in September 2013. It was dismissed as unfounded over a year later, in December 2014. Seven months later, Oellrich was transferred to Marion Correctional Institution, a men’s prison about a mile from Lowell.
“They think they are God. I did drugs, I absolutely made wrong choices in my life. But what they are doing in that prison goes beyond punishment.”
Complaints and confinement
“They come up and handcuff you. Then they say something like, ‘I found this razor blade in your stuff’ and you say ‘that’s not mine’ and they say ‘well, it is now’; or they say ‘oh, you spit on me’ and I say ‘what are you talking about?’ and they say ‘do you know that that is assault? You’re going to do a year and a half in confinement unless you do what I want you to do,’ ” — former inmate Ginjer Ullman
The Miami Herald reviewed hundreds of pages of Lowell records and, over the course of the past year, interviewed more than 30 Lowell inmates — current prisoners, as well as former ones across the state. It examined four years’ worth of inmate complaints; a decade of misconduct allegations filed against wardens, assistant wardens, chaplains, instructors and medical staff. It pored over officer personnel files, inmate histories and criminal records, as well as prison health and safety reports and audits of Lowell’s medical facilities. It also analyzed a trove of letters and emails from women and their families, many alleging sexual, physical and mental abuse at the prison.
The records and interviews suggest that the agency has for years ignored, covered up or dismissed allegations of corruption involving every corner of Lowell — from the chapel and food service to the former assistant warden’s office.
The women described a system of flagrant sexual extortion, intertwined with habitual and illegal smuggling of drugs, tobacco and other contraband; excessive force against inmates for minor infractions such as talking in the chow hall — and a long history of officers forcing women to perform degrading acts.
Complaints allege that officers ordered a blind woman to “read” a Bible in front of fellow prisoners while laughing at her; encouraged women to participate in “breast measuring” and tattoo-examining contests; and just this year scribbled two inmates’ faces with yellow highlighter because they were talking in a hallway in Visitation Park, which is where inmates meet their families.
Records show, in recent years, officers forced one inmate to quack like a duck, and another to do bear crawls from the chow hall to her dorm. One sergeant, while ordering the women to form a line, announced, “Let’s take the Jews to the ovens,” a report alleged.
The yearlong investigation found that nearly every time an inmate filed a complaint, she was forced into some form of confinement, ostensibly for her own protection. Women in confinement are restricted to a 10-by-12 cell, with the clothes on their back and, if they are lucky, a few possessions. They get fewer showers and are likely to miss any classes they have signed up for. Inmates in confinement also say they sometimes don’t receive prescribed medication.
Julie Jones, the FDC secretary, was not available to be interviewed for this story because of a family illness, said spokesman McKinley Lewis. He did provide a list of policy changes, which include new guidelines for all prisons in the use of force, better mental health treatment for inmates and more training for corrections officers.
In an interview in May, Warden Gordon acknowledged that the prison had some “problems” but said it is now on the right track.
“Do we have bad apples? I’m sure we do. Every organization does, but we’re stressing it’s not something we’re going to tolerate,” Gordon said, explaining: “I’ve tasked officers with looking at themselves in the mirror every day and asking: ‘Am I doing all that I can?’ ”
Gordon, a 20-year veteran of the department who previously worked in male prisons, said Lowell is a challenge because women prisoners have different needs than men. A greater portion of Lowell’s inmates require extensive medical and psychological care; the women often have histories of physical and sexual abuse, as well as problems with addiction.
The warden said Lowell has initiated new programs to help them feel closer to their children and families and to better prepare them for life after prison.
“Our goal is to make them better citizens when they get out. Do you want someone we’ve given an opportunity to improve themselves, or do you want someone who has been mistreated and locked away and not given any room for improvement?”
But women interviewed for this story, including some released this year, say violent abuses — and sheer degradation — persist. Those who have seen the popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black say their treatment makes Litchfield Penitentiary, the fictional women’s federal prison, look like a women’s country club.
“I know that I’m in here for a reason,” said Theresa Livengood, 67, who gets around in a wheelchair while serving life at Lowell for killing her father. “But the officers threaten you — they say ‘I can bring in the boys and tear up your stuff’ — which means they take everything they can. They say, ‘Do you want to eat concrete?’ There is no accountability, they don’t answer to anybody, and it gets worse every day.”
Said another current inmate: “I’m serving 25 years in prison. There is nothing more that anyone can do to me except treat me like an animal, like they do. They put me in confinement, they take away my right to see my child. They mess with my mail, make us plead for hygiene items. We aren’t women in here; we are pieces of crap they scrape off their boots.”
Despite the fear of being placed in confinement, some inmates do file complaints of sexual abuse. FDC records show that in 2013, 2014 and the first nine months of 2015, Lowell logged 137 allegations of staff sexual misconduct and 14 allegations of staff sexual harassment toward prisoners. The department sustained just one — although Lewis, the FDC spokesman, said “many” are still under investigation.
Under standards set by PREA, the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, the state is required to keep track of sexual assaults and adhere to strict goals for detecting and preventing sexual abuse.
“Last year, Florida was one of only six states that rejected PREA — a shameful decision given the state’s appalling record on preventing rape in its facilities,” said Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, spokesman for Just Detention International, a health and human rights organization working to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.
Florida finally went along with the standards this year, he said.
Reports from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that Lowell inmates reported slightly higher sexual abuse rates than the national average. The 2010 report found that 4.5 percent of inmates at Lowell reported being sexually abused — by either staff or inmates — within the previous 12 months.
But those numbers don’t tell the full story. Many women say they never report sexual abuse because those who do are punished in insidious ways.
“If you report you are raped, you sit in a 10-by-12 cell with nothing but your uniform, and they close the door,” said former inmate Crystal Harper, who contends she spent months in isolation after reporting officer sexual misconduct. “They put you under investigation, they say for your own safety, then they leave you there until you write up a witness statement that it never happened.”
In the past decade, the Marion County prosecutor’s office, which has jurisdiction over the prison, has brought charges against two officers for sexual misconduct. Both pleaded guilty to lesser charges and served less than a year in jail.
Prosecutors say that without hard evidence, such as DNA or damning video footage, proving officer misconduct can be impossible. The prison has no cameras in its dorms, and few other areas, except for the confinement units, are equipped with working surveillance equipment. Additional cameras have been ordered and are scheduled to be installed, according to FDC.
But it is often the woman’s word against the officer’s — and witnesses can be pressured to keep quiet, inmates say.
“The harsh reality is if an inmate says ‘an officer has sex with me’ and that’s all you’ve got, you don’t have a prayer. For many Lowell inmates, it’s something they are not forced into doing. It’s consensual, which doesn’t make it legal, but they say, ‘Hey I get better food, I get cellphones,’ so essentially they make a trade,” Ric Ridgway, the prosecutor, said.
“I have a daughter that was beaten, abused, neglected and left in solitary for 16 months with bare minimal necessities. She had a hood pulled over her head while she was beaten. . . . She will be getting out in a couple of weeks and I don’t want anything to happen to her. She has three young children to raise. They miss her so much.” — a mother of a Lowell inmate, writing to the Herald on Sept. 15, 2015
Florida has the third-largest prison population in the nation and incarcerates more women than any other state, except Texas, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. No women’s prison in Texas, however, is larger than Lowell, which earlier this year surpassed the Central California Women’s Facility as the largest women’s prison in the nation.
Most women in Florida prisons are serving time for nonviolent crime, and more than half of them are mothers of minor children. They generally serve shorter sentences than men, meaning that they require education, vocational training, rehabilitation and other programs to successfully transition to life after prison.
Florida historically has failed to provide adequate re-entry programs for Lowell inmates, evidenced by two reviews, one in 2006 and another just this year.
In 2006, under the reform-minded leadership of Secretary James McDonough, a retired Army colonel, the FDC commissioned a wide-ranging external review of the prison system.
One prison stood out: Lowell. The survey team from MGT of America, a national consulting firm that evaluates prison systems, devoted an entire chapter to the facility, something it did with no other prison.
The study said that programming to keep inmates engaged and train them for life after prison was so lacking that it created an almost perfect storm of problems, including “unprofessional and demeaning interaction between staff and inmates.”
It also said that the prison’s medical care was “totally inadequate” and that the institution had far too many “psych III” inmates — those on psychotropic drugs.
The FDC was advised at that time to take immediate steps to reduce “over-familiarity” between guards and inmates. The report said the institution not only failed to discourage sexual relationships between officers and inmates, but institutional staff members went out of their way to thwart investigations.
“It’s a culture of corruption, and even the good staff look the other way,” said Laura Bedard, who was FDC’s deputy secretary at the time of the 2006 survey. The report was so alarming that she agreed to step down briefly and become Lowell’s acting warden in an effort to reform the institution.
Nine years later, Lowell, which consists of three facilities — the main unit, the annex and a work camp — spends 46 percent less per inmate on healthcare and 36 percent less on education. The “psych III” inmate population has climbed from 41 percent to 50 percent.
The FDC said that since the first of July, 52 inmates at Lowell have received their high school equivalencies and 80 have received vocation certificates. But a just-completed audit showed that only 14 percent of Florida’s 100,000 inmates get any educational or vocational instruction or substance abuse treatment.
Women say that while Lowell does offer some education and vocational programs, space is limited and access often depends on an inmate’s connections.
“You are paying your debt to society, but it doesn’t end there,” said former inmate Kat Jones, who spent 16 years in prison for grand theft and credit card fraud. “The officers, they are above the law, they dehumanize you and you lose hope. A lot of women come out of prison and sell themselves short, they continue to do drugs and are not rehabilitated.”
Bedard, considered an expert who has published and lectured about women’s prisons, said during her tenure that she fired or forced dozens of officers to resign for misconduct. But within two years, she and McDonough had moved on and practically all the jettisoned staff eventually had their jobs back.
State law makes it difficult to fire corrections officers who, like police officers, are sworn law enforcement officers protected under Florida’s Chapter 112, known as the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights. The law, passed by the state Legislature, gives officers the ability to challenge any discipline, suspension or dismissal if the investigation does not follow very precise rules.
Nonetheless, Julie Jones, the new secretary, has fired 924 FDC employees, 19 of them at Lowell. There have been three demotions, three suspensions and 43 written reprimands of Lowell employees since January, according to FDC.
The department’s regional directors, those above the wardens, have been required to reapply for their jobs. Still, many veteran wardens and regional directors remain in charge.
Critics say the biggest roadblock to cleaning up the agency is that it polices itself. The watchdogs charged with investigating officer misconduct came up through the system and work for the system.
“It’s a huge agency with a lot of eye-winking going on,’’ said Bedard, who now works for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Department. “Julie Jones has her heart in the right place, but you can’t surround yourself with people engrained in that culture. Change the culture first, then you can change the corruption.”
‘A lot of hatred’
“The bad things happen when nobody sees. They can do a lot to me that you cannot stop. I wish I could speak out loud and save everyone from this hell, but I’m not risking my sanity.’’ — a current inmate who is too afraid to have the Herald publish her name
Julie Jones told the Herald that there would be no repercussions against women who gave interviews to the Herald, but some inmates believe that even Jones can’t protect them from powerful corrections officers.
“There’s a lot of hatred in this prison, and it’s not the inmates — it’s the staff,” said Julie Vanduesen, 51, who is serving 40 years for second-degree murder. “It doesn’t matter how many people you put in [administration] — you can rotate people, fire people, but it’s still going to be the same compound. You have to take this place and shake it upside-down or bring the feds in to make this place right.”
Vanduesen said she watches younger, more attractive women manipulate officers to get what they want, and the officers, many of whom are married, use their power to also get what they want. She said she finds it disgusting how the officers show them photographs of their wives and children only to turn around and have affairs with inmates.
“The sex on this compound is unbelievable, that’s all I’m saying. I look at these women and just shake my head. I can’t believe you are doing it, and it’s all for cigarettes and makeup,” she said.
Some women, however, say they do it for protection as much as privileges; an inmate who becomes the “girlfriend” of a high-ranking officer — such as a warden — is almost untouchable.
“For some, sex is the only commodity these inmates can bargain with,” said Johnson, the Vero Beach attorney who filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Lowell inmate in 2009.
Johnson said his client, inmate Betty Riddle, was sexually assaulted by a Lowell officer in 2005 and 2007, and her complaints were ignored by the Department of Corrections. Riddle, then 27, said she was threatened by the officer, Troy Saunders, 41, who told her she would be placed in confinement if she reported the assaults.
She reported them anyway, and prison inspectors investigated, setting her up with a recording device for her next encounter with the officer. When they met, Saunders initiated sex and she resisted, according to the lawsuit, but he forced himself on her. Inexplicably, the prison inspectors failed to stop him. FDC settled the civil case, and Saunders was criminally prosecuted. He spent less than a year in the county jail.
Sex and drugs
Although Lewis, the FDC spokesman, said women are given sufficient supplies, some inmates theorize that officers and staff deny inmates necessities, like soap and toilet paper, as another form of humiliation and control, forcing them to take desperate measures — like selling their bodies, smuggling in contraband and even selling drugs in prison — in order to have money to purchase toiletries, as well as socks, underwear and other items that they say are always in short supply.
Gordon, Lowell’s warden, said the inmates receive everything they are entitled to under prison policy. She said allotments of toilet paper — the item most women complained they don’t get enough of — are adequate. Inmates receive one roll per week but are able to obtain roll-off pieces if they run out, FDC said.
“They issue those inmates one roll of toilet paper a week. To me, that is wrong,” said a Lowell officer. “If you’re a woman, it goes pretty quick. If someone steals it, you’re out of luck. Sometimes officers are lazy; they don’t even want to get up and get them more tissue. Some officers just don’t give a crap at all.”
The officer, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals from superiors at Lowell, said inmates get a “Holiday Inn”-sized bar of soap that lasts for only three to four washes. FDC said they can obtain extra supplies if they need them.
Food is another commodity in demand. The women suspect they’ve gotten sick from eating prison food, and reports from state and county health inspections raise questions about the cleanliness of Lowell’s facilities. Inspections over the past two years have shown infestations of vermin and insects in dorms, as well as the kitchen. Two men were sentenced to jail this past summer for supplying rotten-smelling meat to the prison system in conjunction with a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme. Kitchen workers at Lowell told investigators they were instructed to spice the meat with garlic to hide the strong odor.
Former inmate Delores Borich, who worked in the kitchen, said she sometimes was tasked with taking the roaches out of the food before it was served to the inmates.
“We actually had to eat stuff like that,’’ she said.
Lewis said that in recent months, FDC has improved the quality of food at Lowell by introducing more fruit and vegetables and replacing soy-based products with oven-fried chicken and beef patties.
Still, many inmates use the money they earn by illicit bartering — and other scams — to also buy food in the prison store, or canteen, because they believe the food in the prison kitchen isn’t sanitary.
The bartering sometimes involves other scams that make money, inmates say.
“There are a million hustles in prison,” said Ginjer Ullman, 28. When she was released in 2013, she walked out with $6,000 from writing penpal letters to lonely men, dealing contraband and — when the situation required it — having sex with officers.
“We’re prey. It’s like a lion with a bunch of gazelles. It’s a perfect breeding ground for sexual predators, and it’s a game to them who is f---ing who and who is involved with who,” Ullman said.
Officers, too, can make big money in the prison’s black market. Cigarettes, the prison’s other primary form of currency besides sex, can fetch thousands of dollars a carton. One cigarette can be sold for $10, and a pack can get $200. With 10 packs in a carton, an inmate can earn $2,000 or more because, depending on the type of cigarette, some can be broken down into six to eight roll-ups, which can be sold for $4 to $5 apiece.
Officers, who are allowed to smoke on prison grounds, smuggle in the cigarettes for the women, they say. Said the unidentified officer still working at Lowell: “On Tuesday, an officer will give an inmate cheeseburgers, on Wednesday, the officer comes in and gets oral sex. Then, on Thursday, she gets her cigarettes for the week. On Friday, she sells it and gets cash so she can buy toilet paper and sanitary pads.”
Florida prison officers, who work 12-hour shifts, start at $30,807.92 a year ($28,007 for “uncertified” beginners), and the base salary hasn’t been raised in eight years. It isn’t projected to increase next year, either, and as a result, the agency has had a difficult time keeping experienced officers, who move on to better-paying jobs with local police agencies.
That leaves more inexperienced officers or those with troubled pasts to staff many of the state’s prisons. In addition to cigarettes — which a just-completed audit proposed prohibiting among staff, as they have among inmates — officers can also make money smuggling illegal drugs and prescription medications.
Ullman, who worked as an administrative orderly, assisting staff, said she reluctantly provided oral sex to an officer who caught her smuggling in contraband from Visitation Park. She said she and three other women had an arrangement in which a family member brought tobacco and other goods into the prison in a McDonald’s bag, dumping it in the Visitation Park trash. Then Ullman would go clean out the trash bin.
A ‘BIG PARTY’
“No one ever checked the trash,” she said. She admits she didn’t feel good about having sex with the officer in exchange for his overlooking the transgression, but she showered when it was over.
Ullman, who served three years for leaving the scene of an accident involving injuries, explained: “Let’s say my ‘boyfriend’ is bringing me in cigarettes. And every time I go in the back and have some kind of physical intimacy, even if I hate him, and even if I can’t stand him, and cry every time I go in, nobody wants to tell . . . even if I cry and cry and cut my wrists up because I’m so depressed, then they only hurt me. If I go into confinement, I lose my property. I can’t call home. It’s a lose-lose situation, so no one wants to tell . . . and no one is going to believe you anyway.”
Former inmate Crystal Pascual said she had girlfriends in prison but considered many of the officers her “buddies.” She said they sometimes asked her to be a lookout when they had sex with the women. She would sit in the officers’ station, called “the bubble,” and play on the computer while the officers engaged in trysts with inmates in the bathroom.
The officers are often so absorbed by their smuggling and sexual activities that inmates are able to do whatever they want, moving freely about the compound, socializing, conducting business — having sex not only with officers, but with each other, she and other inmates said.
The prison has one warden, two assistant wardens and 515 officers to oversee nearly 2,700 inmates. Many women interviewed for the story said the staff is stretched so thin — and the officers so overworked — that it jeopardizes security. Reports show that Lowell officers have frequently been caught napping on duty.
In 2013-2014, Lowell had $1.8 million in overtime — the second-highest prison bill in Florida. Overtime for the entire prison system has more than tripled since 2012, to $35 million, records show.
“It’s like one big party,” said Pascual, who served four years for fencing stolen goods before being released in August 2013. “The officers don’t pay attention. They’re sleeping, playing on the Internet, smoking under the pavilion.”
Women who have been released in recent months and those still at the prison say the institution’s sexual bartering system continues to thrive, despite Warden Gordon’s efforts to change the culture.
The officer still at the prison, in an interview Thursday, said smuggling of contraband happens “all day, every day,” but added that in recent months officers have been admonished to stop calling inmates “bitches.”
Angelique Munnerlyn, a former Lowell inspector, spent nearly her entire career at Lowell, rising through the ranks from officer to institutional inspector. She and other inspectors were tasked with investigating wrongdoing.
“She knew how things worked,” said Crystal Harper, who maintains she was involved with some of the higher-ups at Lowell. Harper said she filed many complaints against officers with Munnerlyn, whose nickname on the compound was “Munny.”
“I knew her before she became inspector. She was cool with all the dirty officers because she went to school with them — they were all born and raised here in Marion County.”
Records show that the vast majority of complaints handled by Munnerlyn were closed as either unsubstantiated or “referred to management” — meaning the complaint went back to the warden to handle.
A top official who once worked for the FDC said unwritten policy dictates that if a complaint is a “management’’ issue, the protocol is to do nothing.
“To question the inspector general is career suicide,” said the source, a former warden who did not want to be named because of fears of retaliation against family members who still work for the department.
Harper said she directed Munnerlyn to places she could go in the prison to catch inmates and officers having sex.
“I told her where to go, every Tuesday and Thursday. I gave her proof so she could take it to her higher-ups, or to the regional director so that something could be done,” Harper said. “She never did anything.”
Munnerlyn left the department on her own earlier this year to pursue other opportunities. She did not respond to requests for a comment left at her home.
The ‘Dream Team’
“The shame, the guilt you only think about at night when you’re lying down. During the day, in front of others, you have a facade. You can’t be walking around sad, saying ‘I can’t believe I did this for him.’ You just harbor it, lock it away. . . . That’s how it is in there.” — former inmate Crystal Harper
Harper, whose grandmother and mother are corrections officers in Texas, said she quickly learned that she needed to get to the top of the inmate prison pecking order or risk ending up like some of the older, infirm and less attractive women, who endure some of the worst treatment from staff.
Harper and Ullman said the younger women sometimes looked after elderly, infirm or penniless prisoners. They considered them like “mothers” and sometimes “hired” them to do odd jobs, like holding their place in line or mending their clothes.
But the reality is that women who are old, disabled or unattractive lack leverage. Officers also tend to prey on women who they know have no family or money, the women said.
“You have this culture where the women have formed a coalition of unity, as atrocious as it is,” said Abudu, of the ACLU. “One woman curries favor with a corrections officer by having sex, and that opens the door to get other women’s needs met. So you have a system where other women encourage women to engage in that same behavior.”
Harper admitted that she “pimped out’’ other women, acting as a go-between for officers who wanted sex and inmates who needed things.
Pattie Aldrich, whose face was burned in an accident, spent three years at Lowell for selling prescription drugs. Because of the damage to her face, she isn’t supposed to be in the sun for long periods of time.
“It took me over a year to get a ‘no-sun’ pass from the medical department. I had to stand outside every day for hours,” she said. “My friend, who is still in there, is handicapped and she has a ‘no-standing’ pass, but they make her stand anyway. Unless you’re one of the ‘preferred’ inmates who has a relationship with a corrections officer, the only way to make a complaint is to drop it in a box in the chow hall.”
Added Julie Vanduesen: “I don’t have pretty hair, and I don’t go on my knees. You look at everyone else. They got new uniforms, T-shirts, socks, towels, underwear, but if you’re not a favorite, and you’re not pretty, you’re not getting nothing.”
Multiple inmates told the Herald that officer Kristopher Butterfield, 31, was among a group of officers called the “Dream Team,” because they would let inmates do whatever they wanted.
“I would sit in the officers’ station and eat pizza with Butterfield. He was 350 pounds,” Crystal Pascual said. As a corrections officer, the sex was available to him and he took advantage, Pascual said. “They thought he was going to give them stuff, but he never did,” she said.
In 2012, Butterfield’s wife contacted a corrections colonel after finding letters from an inmate in his pants pocket, records show. She said her husband had sold some golf clubs to one of their friends and that at the bottom of the golf bag were more letters written by the same inmate. She told FDC investigators it was clear he was having a relationship with the woman. The inspector general’s investigators closed the case after Butterfield’s wife failed to show up for an interview and the inmate finished her sentence.
That same year, another inmate, Kimberly Grant, filed a witness statement that Butterfield was providing inmates with cigarettes in exchange for oral sex. After being being placed in confinement, Grant recanted and said the allegations had been mere rumors, according to the FDC report.
Butterfield was fired from FDC in March after he was criminally charged with molesting a 13-year-old girl outside the prison. Butterfield denied the allegation, saying he only gave her a hug and patted her on the head, the arrest affidavit said. The charge was later dropped. He is trying to get his job back.
“I never messed with any inmates,” Butterfield told the Herald. “You know the inmates lie.”
He explained that he and his former wife were going through a divorce at the time she made allegations. He pointed out that he was cleared of all the allegations against him.
Officers have also been accused in FDC reports of getting too close to each other.
Indeed, records show that on Sept. 3, 2014, Sgt. James Vogen told a prison inspector that he and his wife, a fellow corrections officer, were divorcing because he found out that she was having sex with one of his superiors, Capt. Ronald Bradshaw. One day later, another female officer, Rachael Rios, told inspectors that she, too, had been in a relationship with Bradshaw while he was her supervisor and friends with her husband, the FDC report said.
Inspectors interviewed a number of other officers who had heard rumors about the alleged affairs. Bradshaw denied that he was having sex with either woman. Vogen’s wife, Christy, resigned from the department and, after her divorce, moved in with Bradshaw, the report said. FDC investigators found no evidence that he had done anything improper.
A year earlier, Bradshaw, 39, was investigated for (and cleared of) allegedly having sex with an inmate. The inmate was captured on a security camera entering a sergeant’s office in Lowell’s annex. Bradshaw was in the annex office, though he was supposed to be on the other side of the complex, in the main facility, the FDC report said.
“There was no documented reason for Bradshaw to be in Lowell’s annex,” the report said.
Bradshaw retains the rank of captain but now works at Marion Correctional, the male facility. He told the Herald the fact that he was cleared by FDC investigators proves that they were all false allegations.
Letters from ‘Master’
Casey Hodge says she was raped when she was 10 and started taking methamphetamine when she was 12. Drugs were an escape from the realities of living with her mother, a woman who, according to Hodge, drank heavily and mentally tormented her. Hodge dropped out of school in the ninth grade, around the time she lost her eye. By then, she was homeless and addicted to meth.
Hodge moved in with a couple in Silver Springs who had been cooking and selling the drug. They agreed to let her live there if she looked after their little girl. In exchange for drugs, she said she agreed to tell police — if they ever came knocking — that the drugs were hers. The dealer convinced her she would get probation, since she had never been in trouble.
Marion County sheriff’s deputies knocked on Jan. 21, 2012. The arrest report said that David Cruz Colon, who was cooking something on the stove, dropped several bags of meth from his pocket. Hodge did as she had promised, telling deputies that she cooked the drugs. She was charged with trafficking, even though detectives were skeptical.
“I inquired about how she manufactured the methamphetamine and it was obvious that she did not have the knowledge to do so,’’ a deputy wrote in the arrest report.
By the time she was ready to change her story, it was too late. Her public defender told her that if she didn’t accept a plea deal, she could get more than 40 years. She was sentenced to three years. Colon, 37, who had a prior arrest record, got 18 months.
When she arrived at Lowell in June 2012, Hodge was assigned to an open dorm with more than 80 other women. Lowell has a mix of living areas, including two-person cells and open dorms filled with bunks.
“They all look at you like you’re crazy when you come in the door. Then they all try to intimidate you,” she said. “I was scared. I didn’t know if I was going to get my throat slit or if I was going to get killed.”
Women at the prison sometimes get into fights, and those fights can be brutal. Despite the loss of the one eye due to glaucoma and worsening problems with the other, Hodge said she read murder mysteries she took out of the prison library and kept to herself. She also enrolled in a GED program, seeking her high school equivalency.
Her health problems continued. Not only was her left eye failing, but the right side of her face was drooping. She said it took almost a year for her to get permission to visit her doctor, a specialist at Shands Hospital in Gainesville.
“It was humiliating to be chained and shackled in front of a doctor I had been seeing my whole life. He said ‘stuff happens in life that is out of our control.’ He was very understanding, but people who saw me were pulling their children away like I was a monster,” she said.
When she returned to Lowell, Hodge was shaken and emotional. She said corrections Sgt. William Oellrich brought her a magazine article about new technology for people who are losing their eyesight. He sat on her bunk and read it to her.
“He seemed OK at first. He is older — not attractive — but he seemed OK. At the time, I felt like he was a safety net. He was comforting,’’ she recalled.
She said he began to write her typed, unsigned letters, and she also wrote him letters. At first, they were innocuous, but as time wore on, she said he began to both write — and talk — about his sexual fantasies.
“He lived in a fantasy world in his head. . . . The stories he made up in his head were disgusting. He made a checklist of things he wanted to do,” Hodge said.
One afternoon, he asked her to come clean the “bubble,’’ where officers monitor the wing. But this time, instead of offering a sympathetic ear, he wanted something else, according to Hodge, telling her: Have sex with me and do what I say, or you will be sent to confinement.
She said he also threatened to extend her prison sentence, writing up disciplinary reports that would cost her gain time.
Over time, they had sex at least four times, she said.
“I asked him why. I begged, but that fueled him more. Then I didn’t care. He twisted and manipulated me. I was scared and gullible. I did what he said because I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know what he was capable of.’’
Oellrich’s personnel file shows that as far back as 2009, he exhibited inappropriate behavior by improperly touching women and making sexual comments. One time, he led a group of women into the bubble and recited this ditty, according to FDC records: “Roses are red / pickles are green / I love your legs / and what’s in between.’’ A fellow corrections officer reported the utterance, and Oellrich was given a five-day suspension, FDC records show.
About the same time Oellrich was allegedly having sex with Hodge, another inmate reported that she was involved with Oellrich, FDC records show. Inmate Debra Decker told investigators that Oellrich would speak frequently about sexual fetishes and positions, including bestiality, the FDC report said.
Decker and Oellrich spent enough time together to draw attention. She was so smitten with him that she tattooed her wrists with O and H. — a phonetic spelling of his nickname, Sergeant O — the FDC investigation showed.
“That’s the way they did it in there, the officers would pick which women they wanted and tell them to come clean the bubble,’’ Hodge said. “They have the power and they abuse it. Sexual things happened all day, every day.’’
Hodge said she grew more disgusted with Oellrich and tried to fend off his advances. She said he began stalking her around the compound, showing up at odd times at places he wasn’t assigned to be. Her mother told FDC investigators that when she and Hodge’s sister stopped by the prison to visit, Oellrich made a point of meeting them.
Hodge said that in August 2013, amid a falling-out, Oellrich took a piece of paper with her Facebook address on it and turned it in to prison officials, claiming that Hodge had slipped it into his lunchbox. He alleged that Hodge was trying to strike up a personal relationship, an infraction that promptly sent her to confinement.
Hodge told Munnerlyn, the inspector, her side of the story, and also handed over all his letters, the investigation noted. She told Munnerlyn that Oellrich had explained he wrote the letters when his girlfriend went to visit her mother in Tampa.
The letters had various return addresses, most of them postmarked from Jacksonville. The sender on the envelope would be some variation of the name “Master,” as in “Y. R. Master.’’
In February 2014, the letters were submitted to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to obtain fingerprints. During her investigation, Munnerlyn discovered that Oellrich did not have any fingerprints on file, according to the FDC probe. In August 2014, a year after Hodge reported Oellrich’s alleged assaults, Munnerlyn asked him to submit fingerprints and a DNA sample. He declined.
FDC later obtained Oellrich’s fingerprints from the FDLE, which keeps them on file for law enforcement officers. In November 2014 — Hodge was out of prison by then — the results came back: inconclusive.
Hodge said she pointed out one card that had been handwritten. She said Munnerlyn assured her she would have it analyzed, but she never heard back. FDC records show the case was closed as unsubstantiated.
Released but still haunted
Before Hodge’s release, after the stay in confinement, the letter writer picked up where he left off. In the letters, the author relates how he yearns to see her on the outside.
“Hello, my beautiful blue-eyed girl,’’ several of them start.
The letters, which were shared with the Herald, describe mundane things — movies, looking for a new job, going to school, buying a new car — and then segue into deeply personal areas.
“I really can’t stop thinking about you, Casey . . . please remember the pictures, the more x-rated the better. . . . Take your time I know you will want to hook up right away, and I really want to also, but it isn’t as easy for me as that. . . ” one letter says.
Oellrich has not tried to connect with her since she left Lowell, Hodge said. He did not respond to requests for comment through his lawyer.
Today, Hodge lives in a small apartment with her boyfriend outside of Ocala. She hoped to reconcile with her mother, who had visited her in prison, but that didn’t work out.
She said she was unable to obtain her GED because she was in confinement during a critical testing time. She lives on a $733 a month disability.
Self-consciously, she wears her hair swept over her glass eye. In addition to her failing eyesight, she said she has been diagnosed with endometriosis, a painful disorder of the pelvic cavity. She has no medical insurance and hasn’t been able to get treatment.
She remains a convicted felon. That, her lack of education and her poor eyesight make it difficult to find work. She spends most days sitting inside the apartment. She keeps her treasured belongings in a single laundry basket.
She has found little solace, but she said she is drug-free.
“Sometimes I don’t want to be,’’ she said, weeping. “When I did drugs, that was always the answer to my pain. But now, I’m 30 years old and I have nothing.’’
This article was originally published by the Miami Herald on December 13, 2015; reprinted with permission from the author.