Each day, the female inmates at Lowell Correctional Institution would line up at the back gate waiting to talk to “Daddy.’’
In the afternoons, the prisoners would take turns visiting his office, passing him slips of paper and asking for favors like special bunk assignments, chocolates or time to liaison with their female partners.
Assistant Warden Marty Martinez had so many women who wanted to spend time with him that it not only interfered with the daily operation of the facility, it caused jealous fights for his attention among inmates, according to an investigation by the Department of Corrections released Thursday.
Lowell corrections officers told the department’s investigators that they were overruled, punished — and, in one case, even threatened — when they tried to discipline any of Martinez’s favorites.
Martinez, who was fired last week, is among 44 prison staff across the state who have been dismissed since new DOC Secretary Julie Jones took the helm of the embattled agency on Jan. 5.
“The Department has zero tolerance for misconduct of any kind,’’ department spokesman McKinley Lewis said in a written statement Thursday, adding that Martinez “failed to conduct himself in a professional manner and acted inappropriately toward staff and inmates.’’
Lowell, located in Ocala, has been in the spotlight since October, when 36-year-old inmate Latandra Ellington was found dead just 10 days after writing her family a letter alleging that a Lowell corrections officer — she knew him only as “Sgt. Q” — had repeatedly threatened to beat and kill her.
Daryl Parks, a civil rights attorney representing Ellington’s family, said if a high-level administrator like Martinez was able to abuse his authority so blatantly, it’s likely that other officers believed they could do the same.
“It clearly shows this prison is out of control and they need to do something to ensure the safety of inmates immediately,’’ Parks said.
Martinez’s dismissal capped a six-month investigation that involved interviews with dozens of inmates, corrections officers, commanders and other staff at the facility in Ocala.
The firing, for conduct unbecoming an officer, came to light Thursday, one day after the Miami Herald received a tip that Martinez had been fired and inquired about it.
“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 DOC investigators, told the Herald. It would be a crime for a prison staffer to engage in sex with inmates.
The 56-page inspector general report describes in detail how Martinez would spend extended periods talking to young, pretty white or Hispanic women on a daily basis. One sergeant talked about how Martinez would lean against a fence, chatting up inmates and would “grasp his groin and ‘adjust his boys’ [genitals].” Others described seeing him lying prone on a bench, commiserating with attractive prisoners. When guards counseled inmates known to be close to the assistant warden, the inmates would threaten to report the corrections officers to “Marty.”
Officers and inmates said he rarely spoke to inmates who were unattractive. He frequented the Wellness Center, where one of his favored inmates taught aerobics, several witnesses said. He often sat and watched the prisoners, clad in their gym shorts, participate in a Zumba class.
Martinez’s own staffers described how he squired a parade of young women around the compound and invited some of them into his office and locked both doors. The women, who were overheard calling him “Marty’’ and “daddy,’’ would stay in his office for between 10 and 60 minutes, the staffers said.
His behavior became so intolerable — and made some female guards so uncomfortable — that his subordinates reported his behavior to Warden Gus Mazarra, who, according to the report, stated it was news to him. But he did promise to look into it.
The probe was begun after one officer, John Meekins, went to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and filed a police report. He said he had been threatened with harm after conducting a search of two inmates’ property, seizing an unusually large amount of contraband. The search, standard procedure, infuriated Martinez because, Meekins and other officers alleged, the two women were Martinez’s girlfriends.
“You’re going to get your ass beat in the parking lot after work,’’ Martinez allegedly told Meekins in front of two other officers.
Martinez told Meekins that all the officers and sergeants on the shift were “pissed off” at him and that they would retaliate by beating him up.
Lewis, DOC’s spokesman, said that the warden, Mazarra, remains in command at the prison.
“The department continues to review the circumstances surrounding these incidents to ensure that this type of activity does not occur again,’’ Lewis said.
One of the officers interviewed in connection with the case was Sgt. Patrick Quercioli, who in October was placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into Ellington’s death.
Quercioli was the “Sgt. Q” Ellington claimed had threatened to beat her after she allegedly caught him doing something inappropriate.
Three inmates, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, wrote letters to Ellington’s family claiming that inmates at the prison are routinely beaten by guards for sport, that they suspect that inmate “suicides’’ at the prison were really killings covered up, and that male guards sexually abuse and threaten inmates.
Two of the letters were very detailed, providing the last names of guards, the “cliques’’ they belong to and how they use inmates as “pawns’’ in their power struggle to control the prison.
“It was almost like a gang,’’ wrote one inmate.
At the time she died, Ellington, a mother of four, was to be released in seven months after serving a 22-month sentence for grand theft. She was in confinement — separated from the general population — at the time of her death because the agency, DOC officials said, had taken her family’s concerns about the alleged threats seriously.
A private autopsy conducted on behalf of the family showed she suffered blunt-force trauma to her stomach consistent with being punched or kicked, according to Parks, the family’s lawyer.
Lowell Correctional and its annex, under unified management, have had 39 inmate deaths over the past five years, putting Lowell near the top among correctional institutions that don’t serve as hospitals. The annex houses older inmates.