A concrete sign on the front lawn of Lowell Correctional Institution reads, “We Never Walk Alone.” Across the street, former inmate Jordan Upchurch holds up a cardboard sign with that exact message scribbled across it.
Upchurch, who spent the majority of her 120-month sentence at Lowell Correctional Institute, said just as Lowell’s sign serves to represent the unity of their staff, hers symbolizes the solidarity of the inmates, both former and current.
“We’re not ever gonna go away,” Upchurch, 39, said.
Upchurch was one of nearly 80 protesters who gathered in front of Lowell Sunday afternoon to demonstrate against inmate abuse by correctional officers. Protesters, most of whom were former inmates, loved ones and prison reform activists, wore pink and blue T-shirts while carrying picket signs that displayed photos of inmates.
The Civic Media Center organized a carpool system to and from the prison, which lies 40 minutes south of Gainesville, tripling the number of Gainesville attendees from the last protest at Lowell, said Jordan Mazurek, a 28-year-old employee at the CMC.
Mazurek organizes with groups such as the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons and the Gainesville Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, both of which work to protect incarcerated people in Gainesville and beyond.
They said Sunday’s protest is one of the only prison demonstrations they have seen led by former inmates themselves.
“If you just go talk to the women that show up today… every single one of them has a different story of some level of abuse by the guards or really bad treatment,” Mazurek said.
This is the third protest at Lowell centered around inmate abuse and mistreatment by correctional officers.
Lowell is one of the largest women’s prisons in the country and has faced several allegations of abuse in recent years. Last year, four guards assaulted and left inmate Cheryl Weimar paralyzed. None of the guards were arrested for the assault.
As recently as Saturday, a Lowell prison guard was arrested on allegations of spraying bleach on an inmate’s food. Qualesha Williams, 28, reportedly set aside a cup sprayed with bleach for an inmate when the two got into a heated argument.
The Florida Department of Corrections emailed the following statement to The Alligator Sunday in response to questions about the protest and recent abuse allegations:
“The Florida Department of Corrections takes all allegations of abuse or mistreatment of inmates seriously and encourages all inmates and staff to promptly report inappropriate or illegal conduct,” the statement read. “The leadership at Lowell Correctional Institution has a track record of holding employees accountable for misconduct.”
Debra Bennett, the main organizer of the protest and a former Lowell inmate, drove to the protest in a white van with the words “NO MORE LOWELL C.I. BLEACH OR BUST!” painted in large red letters on the outside.
Bennett, 52, who spent five years inside Lowell, is in constant contact with inmates inside the prison. She said she receives dozens of messages a day from those inside Lowell using the app JPay, which allows inmates to communicate with those on the outside via kiosks or tablets in the prison.
Bennett said she remains in daily contact to keep tabs on what’s happening inside the prison.
“I probably get about 50 to 75 JPays a day,” Bennett said. “They are our eyes.”
State Rep. Dianne Hart, who focuses much of her efforts on criminal justice reform, also joined protesters outside the prison Sunday.
In the last few months, Hart filed House Bill 189, which would let nonviolent or first-time offenders serve a minimum of 65 percent of their sentence instead of 85 percent, and House Bill 531, which focuses on improving the treatment of inmates.
Hart, who has visited Lowell six times to see the conditions herself, said she wanted to come and show her support for the women at the prison.
”I just wanted them to know that I stand with them and I am a voice for them,” Hart said.
Bennett said her movement against the abuse at Lowell is only growing. She plans to be in Tallahassee Feb. 5 for Lobby Day to support bills affecting inmate treatment and prison reform and anticipates another protest in the next 60 to 90 days.
“We’re getting bigger, we’re getting stronger, more people are aware,” Bennett said. “Our nation seems to be recognizing the different atrocities that are happening inside the prison.”
Contact Allessandra Inzinna at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ainzinna.
Rep. Dianne Hart talks to protesters on Sunday. The protesters are a part of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.
Billie Laurin and Beth Dodd, both ex-inmates, participate in the protest against Lowell Correctional Institution on Sunday.
Allessandra is a third-year journalism major with a minor in English. In the past, she has covered local musicians and the cannabis industry. She is now the Student Government reporter for The Alligator. Allessandra paints and plays guitar in her free time.