The Justice Department is currently investigating the Lowell Correctional Institution in Central Florida, where female inmates have complained for years about sexual, physical and mental abuse inflicted by corrections officers.
This investigation mirrors that of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama where women were raped, sodomized, forced to engage in oral sex and fondled by corrections officers as state corrections officials looked the other way for nearly two decades.
In 2013, the prison was considered among the 10 worst prisons in the nation. At least one third of its staff was suspected of sexual misconduct, and inmates who dared to report the abuse were punished by being locked in confinement, a more restrictive form of incarceration.
A civil-rights investigation at the prison in 2013 showed that understaffing, poor medical care, inadequate sanitary supplies, overcrowding and poor security fostered an environment where sexual violence and abuse thrived.
Lowell apparently has a huge problem with sexual abuse of prisoners. It has been on the Justice Department’s radar for several years.
In April, John Gore, acting attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice, sent a letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, informing him, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Julie Jones, secretary for the Department of Corrections, that the department had launched a federal probe into conditions at Lowell.
In July, DOJ’s civil rights division sent a subpoena to Florida’s Department of Corrections, demanding records ranging from policy and training manuals to a listing of staff members who were terminated, transferred, suspended or resigned from the prison as of July 1, 2015.
The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division investigates when there is cause to believe that inmates are being subjected to conditions that deprive them of their constitutional rights — in this case, in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protection against Cruel and Unusual Punishment.
Federal investigations follow a standard trajectory that takes anywhere from two to five years. The procedure calls for the department to visit the prison, inspect conditions and to interview inmates.
As part of the probe, the DOJ is holding a community meeting on Aug. 19. Investigators are inviting former inmates and family members of current inmates to the meeting at the Marion Baptist Association in Ocala.
The DOJ reached an agreement with the state of Alabama and its corrections department calling for a series of reforms to protect inmates. It concluded that Tutwiler guards had violated prisoners’ rights.
At Tutwiler, DOJ found that inmates lived in an environment of repeated, open and forced sexual behavior by corrections officers. Prison officials were criticized for failing to address the problems despite repeated complaints. The DOJ was especially critical of state corrections officials who “demonstrated a clear deliberate indifference to the harm and substantial risk of harm to women prisoners.’’
The probe found that Alabama had been on notice of the abuse for more than 18 years but had chosen to ignore them.
The Lowell investigation comes after years of complaints by inmates and activists, who organized in the aftermath of a 2015 Miami Herald investigation, “Beyond Punishment.’’ The series included interviews with more than three dozen former and current inmates at Lowell who described being forced to have sex with officers just to obtain basic necessities such as soap, toilet paper and sanitary napkins.
When someone is taken into custody for allegedly committing a crime, prison conditions can certainly be uncomfortable, but they should never include sexual abuse at the hands of other prisoners or prison staff. Prison guards have the legal and moral obligation to protect the rights of prisoners. Partaking in or allowing unwanted sexual advances is a direct violation of their duty.