Crystal Harper, who did two stretches at Lowell on drug and theft charges, said she had sex or performed lap dances for the benefit of individual officers, inspectors and assistant wardens, sometimes willingly and other times because she was threatened with being placed in “confinement” — separated from other inmates, locked in a cell, deprived, she said, of possessions and necessities, like sanitary napkins.
Among those the 31-year-old former inmate said she entertained was Assistant Warden Marty Martinez, who was fired by the Florida Department of Corrections in January. Corrections officers and inmates complained in 2014 that he had “improper” relationships with young, attractive inmates, many of whom called him “daddy.”
“Lowell is almost like a secret society. There are things that happen, that are hidden, covered up and never discussed,” Harper said.
Harper said she performed a sex act for Martinez, who had promised to pay her $150 in exchange. He never paid her, she said, and so she complained, a move that got her sent to confinement.
Never miss a local story.
“I got to the point that I was so fed up with having to flirt with officers and having to play with officers and having sex with officers and doing sexual favors for officers just so I could survive in prison. So I started to tell,” she said.
Not long after that, she was further stripped of her dignity. Martinez, she was told, engineered her transfer from Lowell to Homestead Correctional — in a black box. That meant, she said, a road trip during which her wrists were secured in tight handcuffs, then her hands were placed in a box secured in front of her with a chain around her waist and shackles around her feet.
A Miami Herald I-Team investigation into corruption, sexual abuse and medical neglect at the largest women's prison in the nation, Lowell Correctional. Reporting by Julie K. Brown / email@example.com.
FDC said that with few exceptions, it routinely “black-boxes” inmates transported between institutions, but former prisoners contend that it was mostly reserved for inmates who were being transported to outside locations — such as court — or those considered a medium to high security threat.
Harper recalled that it was pouring rain when they put her in the back of a dark, windowless van — with no seats. The ride to Homestead was several hours long. By the time she got there, her hands were purple and numb.
“I was happy to be getting away from Lowell, but I was asking God, ‘What did I do so wrong to deserve this?’ There’s no humanity in that at all.”
Around this time, however, other people were starting to talk about Martinez, reports show. A 56-page inspector general report describes how officers saw Martinez spending extended and inappropriate time talking to women on a daily basis. One sergeant told FDC investigators that Martinez would lean against a fence, chatting up inmates and, from time to time, “grasp his groin and ‘adjust his boys’ (genitals).” Other officers described seeing him prone on a bench, head resting on his palm, commiserating with attractive prisoners. When guards counseled inmates known to be close to the assistant warden, the inmates would threaten to tell Martinez, the report said.
Corrections officers told investigators how Martinez invited some of the women into his office and locked both doors, the FDC investigation said. Staffers alleged that the inmates would stay in his office for between 10 and 60 minutes. When inmates were questioned by investigators, they denied that Martinez did anything inappropriate.
Lowell corrections officers told the department’s investigators that they were overruled, punished — and, in one case, even physically threatened — when they tried to discipline any of Martinez’s favored inmates.
“Nobody ever caught him in the act, but we all saw him locked in there with them,” a corrections officer, who gave a sworn statement to FDC investigators, told the Miami Herald in January. It is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, for a corrections officer or staffer to engage in sex with inmates.
Although he was discharged for conduct unbecoming an officer, Martinez has not been charged with a crime. He has denied any sexual relations with inmates. He is appealing his termination and trying to get his job back. He declined to comment for this story.
Inmates and corrections officers interviewed by the Herald said Martinez allowed corruption to flourish, and that Gustavo Mazorra, then the warden, looked the other way. Inmates said they rarely saw him in the compound.
Fifteen years earlier, during his tenure as assistant warden at nearby Marion Correctional, Mazorra became entangled with a female corrections officer who later killed herself. Though it was not against department policy to have relations with a subordinate, Mazorra was demoted and transferred.
He was promoted to warden of Lowell in 2012 and remained at the helm there until February, when he was transferred. He recently retired after spending 30 years with the Department of Corrections.
“I never mistreated any inmate, nor have I condoned it,” Mazorra said in a statement. He insisted that any time he received allegations of misconduct, he reported them to the inspector general’s office.
Inmates interviewed for this story said that despite Martinez’s alleged transgressions, he did try to help inmates get what they needed, whether it was clothing or hygiene supplies.
“What he did wasn’t right, but he was the best wrong one,” one inmate told the Herald, adding, “No matter what, he had your back.”
Nancy Abudu of the ACLU says inmates at Lowell are fearful of reporting sexual abuse by staff.
Nancy G. Abudu, legal director for the ACLU of Florida, said that inmates who were involved with Martinez and other Lowell officers told the ACLU in interviews that they were too frightened to tell FDC investigators. Many of them are still inside FDC prisons and worry they will be placed in confinement — or lose their gain time — if they come forward.
“The level of fear and intimidation is extremely high. They are terrified of any kind of retaliation,” Abudu said.
Angela Gordon, the new warden, said things have changed at Lowell since the departures of Mazorra and Martinez. She insists that bad officers are in the minority and that sexual abuse is not rampant at the prison, as inmates have claimed.
“I’m sure it happens from time to time — with any place, you’re going to have people who are doing the wrong thing. My goal is to put out to the staff that it is not going to be tolerated,” Gordon said.
Gordon said that all complaints about abuse are reported to the inspector general, charged with investigating abuse.
Inmates — and staff members — however, say that the department downplays the scope of abuse at Lowell, and that as long as Gordon and others dismiss the problem, it will continue to spread. Critics say the agency is not capable of cleaning itself up and needs an independent watchdog.
“They can say they have a grip on the corruption. They say they do, but the reality is it’s never going to change,” said Berend Bergner, a former Lowell officer who left this past summer because, he said, he was frustrated with how things were.
Sergeant Berend Bergner quit his job at Lowell because of all of the corruption. He says it was like nothing he had ever seen at his previous job with Madison Correctional Institution. Emily Michot / firstname.lastname@example.org
Harper said she recently had a conversation with Julie Jones, the new corrections secretary.
“She explained to me that she was new and that she was going to make changes and make sure things would never be the way they were,” Harper recalls, saying that Jones apologized to Harper for what she went through.
“Do you think your apology is going to make it better?” Harper asked. “I won’t even buy a TV because I am so used to the silence of being in confinement.”