Ron Berman tried to help his daughter, even in her darker days.
When Carleane Berman was sneaking out to party as a teen, her father scoured Miami nightclubs looking to bring her home. As she dealt with a crippling drug addiction, he enrolled her in a youth program in the mountains of Utah. When she returned from a federal prison stay in 2018, Berman paid for her apartment, pushed her to stay clean and even planned to help her buy a boat so they could sail the coast together.
But Carleane returned from the Federal Correctional Complex Coleman in Sumter County a shattered woman.
Berman could do little to help her quell her nerves, ease her insomnia, or stop recoiling at the sound of voices in hallways. The voices, Carleane said, reminded her of being behind bars with the prison officers who raped her.
Carleane is gone now. At age 27, she died last month of a drug overdose in Syracuse, New York, a tragic twist to an already tragic story — Carleane was one of over a dozen former or current inmates who won a settlement with the U.S. government over their abuse at the hands of a group of federal corrections officers.
Berman, who honored his daughter Saturday at a memorial in Miami, says he’s not done fighting for Carleane.
Although the government paid out around $2 million in a settlement with 15 women, Berman wants the prison officers implicated in the scandal to face criminal charges. Other victims in the case, themselves struggling to rebuild their lives after their tortured time in Coleman, tell the Miami Herald they want the same thing and say Carleane’s story illustrates the psychological toll of the abuse.
“Why haven’t they incarcerated these people?” Berman said from his West Kendall home. “Why haven’t they even acknowledged there’s a criminal investigation?”
Since her death, Berman has sent letters to Florida U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, as well as U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez of Miami, imploring them to “help inquire why any of the administrators, wardens and officers were not criminally charged and convicted of criminal activities.”
Rubio himself sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice one year ago demanding answers, citing a Miami Herald story on the lawsuit.
The U.S. Department of Justice has admitted in court documents that no corrections officers have been prosecuted, despite six of eight admitting to “sexual conduct” with female inmates at Coleman. At least seven have resigned or retired. But officials have refused to say whether there’s a criminal probe into the conduct or possible civil-rights violations.
“Per DOJ policy, our office does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation unless, or until, an individual or entity is formally charged,” William Daniels, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Florida, wrote in an email.
The DOJ in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons also declined to comment. A corrections officers union said it was not representing any of the officers. It was unclear if any of the officers implicated in the sexual abuse have defense lawyers.
The local prosecutor’s office told the Miami Herald last week that it had not been asked to review any investigation into the prison from DOJ or any other law enforcement agency. “We would be happy to review anything” brought to the office, said Walter Forgie, the Chief Assistant State Attorney for the Fifth District, which prosecutes crimes in Sumter County.
The Coleman correctional complex, about 270 miles north of Miami, is the largest federal prison in the United States, with more than 6,000 inmates. It houses low-, medium- and high-risk inmates, as well as a female camp.
The lawsuit, initially filed in December 2019, alleged a widespread and widely known sexual harassment and abuse at the prison by a group of at least eight officers. The complaint said Warden Manuel Ocasio, R.C. Cheatham, Charles Lockett and Shannon Withers, as well as other high-level staffers, were “grossly negligent” in supervising their officers.
Berman was sent to Coleman after receiving a 30-month prison sentence for helping import the club drug Molly from China. She pleaded guilty and cooperated with prosecutors against a notorious synthetic Miami drug ring first chronicled in the Miami Herald’s Pipeline China series.
She grew up in Kendall, the granddaughter of Benny Berman, a 1960s Israeli singer. Her father, Ron Berman, 58, recalls Carleane’s drug problem started in her early teenage years. It led to stays at a youth program in Utah and to her getting placed under judicial supervision via the Marchman Act, which allows loved ones to get court-ordered treatment.
Still, Carleane Berman fell under the spell of Jorge Hernandez, a former U.S. soldier and one of the ring’s leaders who later went to prison twice for dealing in synthetic drugs. He employed a host of young women and former girlfriends to help wire money to Chinese suppliers.
Ron Berman calls him “venomous.” Carleane herself told a judge at her sentencing that her drug habit escalated after she fell “madly in love” with the older Hernandez.
“I was caught up in the typical nightlife scene that fueled my addiction,” she said during the hearing in 2016.
At Coleman, her addiction did not abate. Friends and family say it got worse.
Miranda Flowers, another victim who was raped alongside Berman, recalls officers often supplied them K2, the drug that is often dubbed “synthetic marijuana” and is plentiful in Florida correctional facilities. They were housed together in a dorm at the women’s camp.
“We got alcohol pretty frequently. Wine, vodka, beer — anything,” Flowers said.
Flowers says she and Berman were usually raped together, at least 11 times in various parts of the facility. “We’d walk back to the units and grab our stuff and go straight to the showers and not talk about it,” she recalled.
Another friend and former inmate, Amanda DiMuro, 34, recalled the atmosphere in the woman’s camp “was like a disturbed party.” DiMuro, who was also a victim and part of the lawsuit, said officers in the minimum security camp preyed on young vulnerable women like Berman who had little experience behind bars.
“The people that were supposed to be in charge were not doing what they were supposed to do. Drugs, alcohol, sex. The only thing they didn’t have was weapons,” DiMuro said, adding: “Coleman was hell on earth.”
Officer Christopher Palomares, who resigned in September 2018, was one of the officers who admitted to engaging in “sexual conduct” with seven inmates, including Berman and Flowers. Two others, Timothy Phillips and Keith Vann, also resigned and admitted to “sexual conduct” with Berman and Flowers, the DOJ said in a filing entered into the court file last year.
Palomares and Phillips could not be reached for comment. Vann, who was in charge of the landscaping detail where Berman and Flowers worked, told the Tampa Bay Times last year: “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish that I hadn’t done what I did.”
One of the civil attorneys on the case, James DeMiles, who represented three other women, said the prison officers knew which places in the facilities were not covered by video surveillance cameras.
“These officers took advantage of the dead spots,” said DeMiles, of Miami.
To keep the inmates from speaking to investigators, Flowers and others said, they were often transferred to a local county jail, where they were kept in isolation for 23 hours a day.
Trouble back home
Carleane Berman got out of Coleman in 2018. But transitioning back to life in South Florida proved challenging. She attended beauty school and worked transporting rental and sold cars across the state. Berman, who was gifted in drawing as a child, had another ambition.
“She wanted to become a tattoo artist,” said Ron Berman, her father.
Carleane had a tumultuous relationship with her father over the years, but eventually they smoothed out their relationship and she confided in him about the prison abuse. “I had no words. I couldn’t digest it. I was speechless,” Ron Berman said. “She talked a lot about PTSD. She had a hard time getting to sleep. She was erratic and had a lot of anxiety.”
The lawsuit was filed in late 2019, and it eventually went to mediation. The case consumed Carleane, who continued using drugs. “She masked her own pain,” her father said. “I don’t think she went a day without using.”
Flowers recalled that a prison special investigator assigned to the Coleman case told her the officers had been allowed to resign in exchange for their admissions and no charges. It’s not unheard of for jail or prison officers to get arrested for sexually abusing inmates — in June, a Miami-Dade corrections officers got 10 years in prison for raping women under his supervision.
In the Coleman case, the lack of criminal charges ate away at both Flowers and Berman.
“It burnt out her spirit,” Flowers said. “They were walking around free and she had to carry all this disgust and hurt and shame.”
DiMuro remembers that Berman became distraught when the wife of one of the resigned prison officers messaged her out of the blue on Facebook, saying “my family is destroyed, my children are devastated” because of what happened at Coleman.
Berman apologized — but reminded the woman that as an inmate, she was victimized. “I hate men. They’re filthy,” she wrote. “You know what [damage] it caused me being put in a situation that they have power over me … trust me, a man being unfaithful is expected I’ve come to realize. It [sucks] it hurts. But I have pain that I’m dealing with myself.”
The victim-blaming rankled DiMuro, who pointed out that the officers’ conduct was against prison policies and the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
“The abuse of power is not OK because they wear a blue uniform. It’s never consensual because they are in a position of power,” said DiMuro, who recalled that one jealous officer threatened to limit her visitations if any men visited her in prison.
Carleane Berman, like the other women, eventually received her settlement. Hers was only about $40,000, but it was money she hoped to use to start a tattoo shop. First, she and her father hoped to buy an RV or a boat and travel the country.
But her life continued to spiral. By July 12, she was in Syracuse, New York, with her boyfriend. Her father still agonizes about the details of her last hours, using drugs with a group of other people she’d met there. Carleane was supposed to be on a flight home at 5 a.m.
But by 3 a.m., Carleane — who always picked up her calls — was not answering frantic calls from her parents. Eventually, they spoke to police officers, who broke the news that she had been found “unresponsive” and had died.
Toxicology tests are still pending, but her father believes she died of heroin or fentanyl.
“I blame everything on Coleman. I want them held accountable,” Berman said. “She was never the same after Coleman.”
David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.