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Florida prison failed to protect female inmates from repeated sexual abuse, DOJ says

Florida prison failed to protect female inmates from repeated sexual abuse, DOJ says

 The Justice Department says an investigation found prison staff had sexually abused women at Lwell Correctional Institution.

OCALA, Fla. — "Disturbing."

That's how cases of sexual abuse were described in a scathing report on a Florida prison. 

In a news release Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida said there is "reasonable cause to believe" conditions at Lowell Correctional Facility in Ocala violate the eighth amendment of the constitution. And, there was reason to believe the prison failed to protect its inmates from sexual abuse by its staff. The 34-page report includes supporting facts for the alleged conditions, along with minimum measures the prison needs to implement or change to fix the problems.  

The report states the Florida Department of Corrections has been aware of and has documented staff sexually abusing Lowell prisoners since at least 2006. Both the FDOC and the prison facility failed to act to fix the "systemic problems" that allowed for the abuse to take place and continue, the DOJ said.

The civil rights division officially began an investigation into Lowell on Apr. 17, 2018. The report says the investigation found prison staff would frequently grope female inmates, bribe them with contraband, coerce inmates into abusive sexual "relationships," and would watch prisoners when they showered, used the bathroom or changed. And, if the women tried to report the abuse, the report says staff would threaten them with solitary confinement. 

According to the report, Lowell is the oldest women's prison in Florida and has been open since 1956. It's the largest women's prison in the country. On Nov. 19, 2019, there were reportedly 2,264 inmates at the correctional facility. At the time, 595 staff members had contact with prisoners.

FDOC is the third-largest state prison system in the U.S. and has an annual budget of $2.4 billion, making it the largest state agency in Florida, according to the report. About 96,000 people are incarcerated in 145 facilities statewide. Of those, 14 facilities have approximately 6,600 women imprisoned, the report states.

The report says of the 161 investigations of staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse allegations between 2015 through 2019, only eight were closed as a result of the accused officer's arrest. In several cases, the accused officer resigned. More than two dozen officers were fired because of "agency policy" or for committing perjury or making false statements, the report said.

"Lowell has a long history of tolerance for sexual abuse and harassment, which continues to the present," the report read in part. 

The report also said understaffing of the prison created an environment where staff could engage in misconduct without detection, thus creating a high risk of sexual abuse for the women incarcerated. 

The report also stated the investigation found staff constantly violated the privacy of female inmates. And, efforts to remedy those violations weren't sufficient. When highlighting how male staff would continue to fail to announce themselves properly, the report said a sign reading "male staff may be on duty at any time" is "not helpful." 

The report also highlighted the FDOC's failure to properly keep records and track how many sexual abuse claims an officer had. Moreover, the report says officials knew of prisoners' risk of sexual abuse by staff but chose to disregard it.

"Sexual abuse cannot be tolerated anywhere and female prison inmates are particularly vulnerable during their confinement,” said U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez for the Middle District of Florida in a release. “This investigation represents a first step towards putting an end to sexual abuse at the Lowell Correctional Institution, and we look forward to working with the State of Florida in finding tangible, effective solutions.” 

In 2015, the Miami Herald wrote a special report that highlighted corruption and sexual abuse within Lowell, which the justice department mentioned in its report. 

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