When other inmates saw four guards beating a handcuffed Cheryl Weimar outside the prison compound, they initially thought she was dead. The mentally ill 51-year-old was limp as the male correctional officers delivered the blows, a federal lawsuit alleges. Her head bobbed along the ground, eyes rolled back.
The Aug. 21 assault at Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution nearly killed Weimar, and left her a quadriplegic. At the hospital where she has spent the past few weeks, she breathes through a tracheotomy and eats through a tube. She will need round-the-clock medical care for the rest of her life, according to the lawsuit.
Now, Weimar’s lawyer claims in a new lawsuit, the Florida Department of Corrections is trying to wriggle out of paying for that care. Prison officials are seeking to release the injured woman from their custody early, a move that would free them from covering all her medical bills.
“The only reason she needs any sort of medical care for quadriplegia is as a result of their employees,” attorney Ryan Andrews told The Washington Post. “In my view, they’ve been playing games with her since this happened.”
The Department of Corrections said it could release only limited information about the incident, which was first reported by the Miami Herald , because it remains under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“We recognize that preliminary reports from this incident are concerning,” department Secretary Mark Inch said in a statement. “We’re committed to examining all the details regarding this situation and ensuring appropriate action is taken.”
In court filings, the agency has denied wrongdoing and asked the judge to dismiss the case.
Officials have not publicly identified the guards accused of attacking Weimar. Andrews, who filed the most recent lawsuit to force the department to turn over records, said they are still on the job. The Department of Corrections said they have been reassigned to posts that keep them out of contact with inmates.
The beating was the latest tragedy for Weimar, her attorney said. She showed up at a relative’s house at 6 years old with cigarette burns on her body, he said. She drifted in and out of jail over the years, the Herald reported, arrested on charges including loitering, burglary, prostitution and public drunkenness. At times, she experienced homelessness.
“She basically spent her whole life on the streets just trying to get by,” Andrews said of Weimar, who is bipolar and has an anxiety disorder.
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She landed at Lowell Correctional Institution in 2016. The central Florida women’s prison is the state’s largest and country’s second-largest, according to the Herald, which has documented deaths, mistreatment and abuse behind its walls. The facility is the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, the newspaper reported.
Weimar was sentenced to serve six years there after pleading no contest to aggravated battery and resisting arrest with violence. The charges stemmed from a 2015 altercation with her ex-boyfriend in Broward County, during which Weimar cut him with a knife.
On Aug. 21, about eight months into her sentence, Weimar was on work duty. She was tasked with cleaning toilets but, because of a hip condition, told the guards she couldn’t do it. The guards became irate — and then violent, according to the lawsuit.
“With a bad hip and nothing more than cleaning supplies, (Weimar) was defenseless,” the suit says.
The guards allegedly slammed her to the ground and hit her in the head, neck and back. They dragged her outside, to an area where surveillance cameras couldn’t record the beating. Other inmates watched in horror and begged other employees to intervene, Andrews said. Some were convinced the guards were beating a dead body.
When it was over, one of the prison employees said, “She was already disabled; they just disabled her more,” according to the lawsuit.
Weimar was taken to Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville. She is being treated by medical providers contracted by the Department of Corrections, confined in a medical wing reserved for prisoners.
With credit for time served, Weimar is not scheduled to be released until January 2021, records show. But now, Andrews said, the Department of Corrections is considering seeking a medical release so she gets out sooner. His lawsuit claims department employees persuaded her to sign documents she did not understand, which signed over her disability benefits.
[ Her case opened the way for people with disabilities to reclaim their freedom. Now, her words open a book that could help countless more. ]
If Weimar were released, Andrews said, the agency would be responsible for only half of her medical expenses, while Medicare would cover the rest. The change would be made through what’s called conditional medical release , a program that allows the Corrections Department to recommend that a commission approve the early release of terminally ill or permanently incapacitated inmates.
Andrews said he is usually supportive of the concept, which allows the imprisoned a chance to spend time with loved ones while they are dying or disabled. But in this case, he’s suspicious of the motivation.
“I don’t think it’s good faith,” he said. “I’m not sure how much good faith you could possibly have here when your employees do this to her.”
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