A federal investigation at The Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida found that the sexual assault of inmates at the hands of guards and other prison staff has been ongoing and virtually unpunished for years.
According to the investigative report by The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, aka “The Department,” the sexual abuse of female prisoners at the largest women’s prison in the United States is perpetrated by staff who threaten inmates with various types of retaliation if they don’t comply with their sexual demands.
What’s more, the department says that the Florida Department of Corrections has violated inmate’s 8th amendment rights which say in part, no “cruel and unusual punishments [will be] inflicted” by not protecting them from sexual abuse.
According to the investigative report, “the FDOC has documented and been aware of a pattern or practice of staff sexual abuse of Lowell prisoners since at least 2006. Despite being on notice of this sexual abuse, FDOC and Lowell failed to take timely action to remedy the systemic problems that have enabled corrections officers and other staff to continue to sexually abuse Lowell prisoners.”
The investigative report says sex between inmates and staff has been a normal, ongoing part of life at the prison.
“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,” the report said.
Of 161 Sexual Assault Cases Investigated, Only 8 Resulted in the Arrest of a Staff Member
The investigation looked at 161 reported incidents of sexual assault by a staff member on a prisoner spanning from 2015 through 2019. Of those incidents, eight officers were charged and arrested.
Another finding was that more often than not, according to the report, the investigations are not thorough. In many cases, the accused perpetrator is not even interviewed. In other reported incidents, the investigation is eventually “suspended” and then lingers for years, with no outcome. Often the guards keep their jobs regardless of multiple accusations against them, being reprimanded or moved to a “no inmate contact list” rather than losing their jobs. In other situations, they quit during an investigation but remained employed within the FDOC.
But that’s a problem, according to the writers of the investigative report.
“By allowing sexual predators to resign quietly or terminating them for ambiguous ‘policy’ violations, instead of making a finding of sexual misconduct and terminating them for that reason, FDOC fails to deter criminal behavior and sends a message to other officers that punishing sexual misconduct is not a priority,” they wrote.
According to the investigators, the accusations include a variety of personal violations against the inmates:
Incidents of staff sexual abuse of prisoners at Lowell are varied and disturbing. 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 the staff.
In other instances, staff demanded that prisoners undress in front of them, sometimes in exchange for basic necessities, such as toilet paper. Many prisoners reported that staff watch them while they shower or use the toilet, with no penological justification.
There are a combination of factors that lend themselves to Lowell Prison Staff getting away with sexually assaulting prisoners, but one of the glaring reasons is that the prison is chronically understaffed and there is a lot of turnover, according to the investigative report.
Often several posts are left unguarded because there isn’t enough staff, and “because of the high staff turnover rate at Lowell, staff often are young and inexperienced; the trainee eligibility age was recently lowered from 19 to 18,” the report says.
The Investigation Found That When Women Report the Abuse or Harassment They Are Punished in Some Way
The 36-page investigative report not only lays out the failures of the prison system to stop the sexual abuse, but it also points out that the road to reporting a sexual assault is fraught with fear of consequences.
Investigators wrote in the report that when women did come forward about sexual abuse, they were handcuffed and taken to administrative confinement and experienced loss of privileges, property and visitors.
“Dozens of women reported that they believed prisoners who report sexual abuse are sent to confinement. This belief was corroborated by staff,” the report said. “For example, a sergeant we interviewed stated that prisoners are most definitely placed in handcuffs and taken to confinement after reporting abuse. This same sergeant indicated that prisoners do not get visitation when placed in administrative confinement.”
Another issue with reporting abuse is the constructs in which it is to take place, which are unrealistic for timeliness in situations where earlier reporting could result in a more robust investigation.
Investigators cited posters hanging on the prison walls listing how to report sexual abuse. Those include telling any staff member (some of whom are the alleged violators), file a report, which is not handled with any urgency, according to the investigators. Or an inmate can tell a compliance manager if there is one around. Other options have to do with having phone access, and prisoners are limited on the times they can make phone calls.
If Lowell Prison Does Not Protect its Inmates From Sexual Abuse at the Hands of Staff in 49 Days, There Will Likely Be a Lawsuit for the Ongoing Violation of the Inmates Rights
With the myriad issues that have created a climate where women are forced into sex acts with little recourse to change the situation, it is unclear what the prison is going to do to overhaul the broken system the Department’s investigation uncovered.
But they are expected to figure it out or get sued.
In a statement from the Florida Department of Corrections, Secretary Mark Inch told Heavy:
FDC has cooperated fully with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division during their investigation initiated in 2017 and will continue to do so. We appreciate the work of the U.S. Department of Justice and will be sharing the actions our Department has taken to address the serious concerns outlined in their review.
Heavy also asked Lowell C.I’s Warden Stephen Rossiter, and Assistant Warden Michael Quimby for a statement regarding the accusations and is still awaiting a reply.
The writers of the investigative report said the Department “has reasonable cause to believe that Lowell violates the constitutional rights of prisoners in its care, resulting in serious harm and the substantial risk of serious harm. Specifically, Lowell fails to protect women prisoners from harm due to sexual abuse by staff.”
However, they say they’re willing to help by working with the state to “ensure that these violations are remedied.”
The report ends with a warning that the state and the prison have 49 days from the day the report came out, December 22, that the “Attorney General may initiate a lawsuit pursuant to CRIPA to correct deficiencies identified in this letter if State officials have not satisfactorily addressed our concerns.”