TALLAHASSEE – A group of female legislators hope other lawmakers are receptive to changes in Florida’s correctional system after a federal investigation found the state failed to protect inmates from sexual abuse by staff at the state’s largest women’s prison.
Four Democratic legislators called for the removal of some upper-level administrators and for mental-health evaluations of staff at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, which was the focus of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and Florida federal prosecutors.
“There’s no room for this type of abuse. And these officers need to be held accountable,” said Rep. Susan Valdés of Tampa.
The findings of the investigation released in December found reasonable cause to believe “varied and disturbing reports” of sexual abuse – including rape – by sergeants, correctional officers and other staff at Lowell.
“It’s now written in black and white,” said Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa. “And if this report does not change attitudes in Tallahassee, when we swore on the oath of the Constitution to protect our citizens, I don’t know what else will.”
The investigation, which began in 2018, found that state Department of Corrections officials have documented and been aware of sexual abuse at Lowell since at least 2006.
“Lowell has a long history of tolerance for sexual abuse and harassment, which continues to the present,” the report said. “In interviews with the department prisoners spoke of sex between staff and prisoners as a regular event, suggesting a normalization of sexual abuse by staff. Some current and former staff made similar representations.”
After the report was released, Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said his agency “has cooperated fully” with the federal agency and “will continue to do so.”
The report included graphic details of sexual abuse by staff at the prison.
“Some staff abused prisoners through unwanted and coerced sexual contact, including sexual penetration, and groping. Prisoners were forced or coerced to perform fellatio on or touch the intimate body parts of staff. In other instances, staff demanded that prisoners undress in front of them, sometimes in exchange for basic necessities, such as toilet paper,” the report said.
The report noted that several Lowell officers and other staff have faced criminal charges based on allegations of sexual abuse of prisoners, while “many more” have been investigated for credible accusations of sexual abuse, including forcible rape, sexual acts in exchange for contraband, and other forms of coerced sexual activity.
The investigation also revealed a pattern in which prisoners who report sexual abuse are placed in confinement or threatened with other retaliation.
“It is particularly disturbing that supervisors are among the repeat perpetrators of sexual abuse at Lowell,” the report said. “In some cases, abuse allegations were channeled through alleged abusers, who were tasked with writing up incident reports on behalf of alleged victims.”
Lowell, which opened in 1956, is the nation’s largest women’s prison, according to the report. As of November 2019, the prison complex housed more than 2,200 inmates and had a staff of nearly 600, the report said.
Accompanying the investigation was a notice that seeks a variety of remedial measures, such as requiring prisoners who report sexual abuse to have access to telephones and visitation.
The notice also seeks to ensure prisoners are educated on how to access internal and external confidential reporting options and ensure that prisoners who report sexual abuse have access to victim advocates during evidence collection and investigative interviews.