by David M. Reutter
On August 21, 2019, prison guards at the Lowell Correctional Institution (LCI) near Ocala, Florida allegedly beat Cheryl Weimar “to within an inch of her life” because the 51-year-old prisoner – who was left a quadriplegic following the attack – refused to clean a toilet, according to a federal lawsuit filed by her family. Since then, one of the guards involved has been arrested on unrelated charges and the state has moved to release Weimar in an apparent attempt to avoid paying some of her medical costs.
The lawsuit, filed on September 3, 2019, says Weimar complained of pain from a preexisting hip condition when ordered to clean toilets in her dormitory, and she requested a legally-mandated “reasonable accommodation.” Displeased with her refusal to comply, a guard called three others to enforce his command. The stress of the situation, Weimar said, caused “an adverse psychological episode,” so she declared a “psychological emergency.”
Under prison policy, at that point a medical professional should have been called to assess the situation. Instead, one of the guards reportedly threw Weimar to the ground, then all four piled on and “brutally beat her with blows to the head, neck, and back.” At least one of the guards “elbowed [her] in the back of her neck, causing her to suffer a broken neck,” the complaint states. They then dragged Weimar “like a rag doll” to an area outside camera view, allowing her head to “bounce along the ground” until they reached an unmonitored area where they continued the “malicious and sadistic beating.”
“She was telling them to please, please help her and so they threw a wheelchair at her to taunt her,” said Weimar’s attorney, Ryan Andrews. “They dragged her around for a while, and really messed her up. They either broke her neck when they slammed her, or what they did after, by dragging her around, caused further trauma to her neck and spine.”
The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) refused to allow Andrews to take pictures of his client’s injuries at a hospital. Along with filing the civil rights action, he claims evidence points to multiple prisoners who witnessed the attack but have been intimated or threatened by guards to prevent their testimony. Andrews filed a motion to keep LCI staff away from Weimer while she was in the hospital, which the district court denied. He also requested that the court immediately allow her injuries to be photographed.
“It is imperative that we find out happened here and that the public have access to the videotapes showing Cheryl beaten,” Andrews said. “Now a quadriplegic as a result of the beating, Cheryl will never get to walk in her garden and play with her cats, or swim in the ocean, things she once loved, all because she needed help with her disabilities. What happened behind the walls at Lowell is evil.”
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is also investigating allegations of sexual assault at LCI. [See: PLN, Jan. 2019, p.50]. Prisoners and their families have urged the DOJ to expand its investigation to include claims of physical violence, and Weimar’s beating may help that effort. In October 2019, about 60 advocates and former prisoners upset over what happened to Weimar staged a protest outside LCI, which is one of the largest women’s prisons in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the guards involved in Weimar’s beating have remained on duty but were removed from contact with prisoners – mailroom duty is the FDOC’s customary assignment for staff during a pending investigation. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is assisting in the investigation, in cooperation with FDOC’s Office of the Inspector General.
In October 2019, Andrews filed a motion to have Weimar transferred from the Florida Women’s Reception Center, where she has been held since leaving LCI, to a long-term medical facility so she can receive adequate treatment. He claimed that FDOC officials had coerced Weimar into signing something – they didn’t give her a copy – and he feared the state was trying to grant her a Conditional Medical Release (CMR) in order to avoid paying the cost of her long-term medical care.
“Everything about the way [FDOC] has acted since the moment this lady has been injured is gutless,” Andrews said.
State law allows the FDOC to recommend prisoners for CMR who are either “terminally ill” or “permanently incapacitated,” usually so sick and dying prisoners can be with their families. The case is then sent to the Commission on Offender Review, which according to a 2018 report has granted 66 of 125 recommended releases since the state legislature created CMR in 1992. Currently scheduled for release in 2021, Weimar is entitled to medical care while incarcerated, but once she is freed the FDOC would be relieved of half the burden, which Medicaid would pick up.
“If [FDOC] is trying to release her so they don’t have to pay her medical bills, that’s not what this law is for,” noted Tallahassee clemency and parole attorney Reggie Garcia.
In November 2019, the Miami Herald reported that one of the guards involved in Weimar’s beating, Lt. Keith Turner, 34, had previously been accused of several serious violations, including:
• a 2009 allegation that he harassed a prisoner for her religious beliefs;
• a 2012 allegation that while handcuffing a prisoner he taunted her to “go ahead and complain,” saying she would just “give [him] a reason” for treating her roughly;
• a 2014 allegation by a former LCI prisoner that he was one of a group of guards that regularly traded contraband such as cigarettes for oral sex from prisoners, and a separate allegation in 2015 that he had sex multiple times with a prisoner and groped another while making lewd comments;
• another 2015 allegation that he subjected prisoners to unwarranted violence, including pepper-spraying them and slamming their heads against walls;
• several 2018 allegations that he body-slammed one prisoner, dragged another across the compound and pepper-sprayed two others without provocation; and
• a 2019 allegation that he left a prisoner outside to suffer oppressive heat for over three hours.
“Everyone is afraid of retaliation from this [lieutenant] and now is keeping their mouth shut about this particular situation,” said the LCI employee who made the 2019 complaint.
FDOC reports do not indicate whether Turner was disciplined for any of the prior incidents, but officials at LCI promoted him to sergeant and then lieutenant. The process to fire him finally began in November 2019 – but only after he was arrested by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) and charged with sexual battery and child molestation for allegedly sexually assaulting a girl that began when she was six years old and continued for 10 years. MCSO investigators located a second child who reported that Turner had sexually assaulted her, too.
“The sheriff’s findings in this case against Mr. Turner are abhorrent and in complete contrast to the values and integrity held by our staff,” FDOC Secretary Mark Inch said in a statement. “We are moving forward with his immediate dismissal.”
“I’m not even sure these allegations will result in his termination,” Andrews scoffed. “The fact that [FDOC] is proud they have now fired this guy, they can save it. The fact that now they have some moral rectitude about needing to dismiss Turner is disgusting in light of the prior accusations against him for which they did nothing.”
The FDOC hasn’t identified any of the other guards involved in the attack on Weimar, though another guard, Ryan Dionne, has been named in court filings.
“We are going on two months since the beating on Aug. 21 [and] there haven’t even been names released,” said Debra Bennett, a former LCI prisoner who organized the protest outside the facility. “We’re not gonna let people forget what happened.”
“You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem,” added Janice Spears, a 49-year-old former LCI guard who joined the protest. “The officers that are in [LCI] – quit being the problem. Please, stop abusing these women.”
Weimar’s lawsuit remains pending. See: Weimar v. Florida Department of Corrections, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 5:19-cv-00548-CEM-PRL.
Sources: miamiherald.com, tallahassee.com, lawandcrime.com, wcjb.com, abcactionnews.com, alligator.org
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Related legal case
Weimar v. Florida Department of Corrections
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 5:19-cv-00548-CEM-PRL|