The largest women's prison in the country subjects incarcerated women to pervasive and frequent sexual assaults, violating their Eighth Amendment rights, the Justice Department concluded in a scathing and graphic report released today.
The report is the product of a two-year investigation by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division into rampant sexual abuse and corruption at Lowell Correctional Institution, a state women's prison near Ocala, Florida, that holds about 2,200 inmates. Investigators found that "sexual abuse of women prisoners by Lowell corrections officers and staff is severe and prevalent throughout the prison."
"Incidents of staff sexual abuse of prisoners at Lowell are varied and disturbing," the report says. "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."
Furthermore, Justice Department investigators found that the prison had inadequate measures to prevent sexual abuse. Specifically, staff exploited blind spots in surveillance camera coverage to abuse women; the prison deterred women from reporting abuse via threats of retaliation and involuntary placement in solitary confinement "for days or weeks at a time;" and the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) Office of Investigator General (OIG) prematurely closed, suspended, or indefinitely delayed investigations into alleged sexual assaults, failing conduct proper investigations.
"A number of staff who allegedly sexually abused prisoners have been dismissed or resigned while under investigation, instead of being terminated for cause based on investigative findings," the report says. "In some of these instances, OIG terminated its investigation or failed to make progress investigating what may have been criminal misconduct."
The specific instances identified by the Justice Department are extremely disturbing:
In March 2018, a Lowell sergeant allegedly anally raped a female prisoner in a storage area at Lowell. She alleged that the sergeant forcefully "turned [her] around, pulled [her] pants down and forced his penis in anally, then he wiped himself off on [her] thermals." Extensive evidence, including photographs showing anal trauma, documents the victim's injuries. A forensic examination of the victim after the assault found that she was suffering "back pain" and "rectal pain" and had "loose stool" and "loss of bowel control." An OIG inspector who worked on the case told the Department that Lowell staff mishandled the alleged victim's clothing in the immediate aftermath of her report, so no DNA evidence was collected for subsequent forensic lab testing. Shortly after the alleged rape, the sergeant went on leave; he subsequently resigned from his position with FDOC. As of September 2020—two and a half years after the alleged incident—OIG's investigation remained open.
The report also said supervisory staff threatened prisoners about cooperating with DOJ investigators.
"Prison officials have a constitutional duty to protect prisoners from harm, including sexual abuse by staff," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a Justice Department press release. "Sexual abuse is never acceptable, and it is not part of any prisoner's sentence. Our investigation found that staff sexually abused women incarcerated at Lowell and that these women remain at substantial risk of sexual abuse by staff. Our investigation also found that sexual abuse is frequent. This systemic misconduct means that many women suffer abuse. In addition, prisoners are discouraged from reporting sexual abuse and investigations of sexual abuse allegations are inadequate. This illegal and indecent treatment of women must end, and the Department of Justice will not tolerate it."
The Civil Rights Division launched its investigation in 2018, following years of reports and news investigations of sexual abuse and wretched conditions at Lowell. The Miami Herald launched an investigative series in 2015 that found numerous accusations of assaults, retaliation, filthy conditions, inadequate healthcare, and suspicious deaths at the prison, as well as "an inadequate number of cameras," which allows guards to hide brutality.
In 2019, a Lowell inmate, Cheryl Weimar, was paralyzed from the neck down after a brutal attack by guards, allegedly for refusing to clean a toilet. She was allegedly dragged out of sight of cameras.
Internal FDOC incident reports showed that Keith Turner, one of the guards allegedly involved in the beating, had a long history of complaints against him alleging excessive force, verbal and physical abuse, and trading contraband cigarettes for oral sex. Turner was later arrested on charges of molesting two minors and fired from the FDOC. The other correctional officer named in the lawsuit was reassigned and remains employed at the department.
Florida eventually settled Weimar's lawsuit for $4.6 million.
The DOJ report essentially serves as a notice to the FDOC. If it does not take steps to remedy the violations that the Justice Department has identified, the Justice Department may launch a civil rights lawsuit against the state.
It's not an idle threat. The Civil Rights Division sued Alabama this month over its prison system after issuing two reports detailing constitutional failures to protect inmates from violence and sexual assaults.
For prison advocates and families of incarcerated women at Lowell, the report has been overdue for years.
"The families of women incarcerated at Lowell have literally been begging for years for someone—anyone—to listen to their allegations of rampant sexual abuse," says Greg Newburn, Florida director of policy for the criminal justice advocacy group FAMM. "The conditions there are beyond horrifying, and yet for years their cries for help were ignored."
Newborn says the report only underscores the need for independent oversight of prisons.
"Anyone who bothered paying attention knew this was happening, and nobody did anything about it," he says. "How many women have to be sexually assaulted in prison before our leaders act?"
The FDOC did not immediately return a request for comment.