Prisons

Justice Department Finds Rampant Sexual Assaults and Constitutional Violations in Country's Largest Women's Prison

The report confirms what news investigations and advocates have said for years: Lowell prison lets guards abuse women without consequence.

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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.

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  1. Proposed solution: Move women into the men’s prison for better integration and representation.

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    4. “violence and sexual assaults” You mean criminal assault on a female and rape..for which no one will be held accountable !!

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  2. This is why women’s prisons should be staffed by women to the extent possible. But I guess that’s not possible because of discrimination laws?

    1. Look, we’re trying to keep rape and cruelty to a minimum here. It’s like you’ve never seen Mean Girls.

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    2. In NC male COs were not allowed to work in the housing units of female prisons though female COs could work anywhere in a male prison. Males COs in female prisons would work in programs, hallway control rooms, the kitchen, etc.

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      2. Conscientious Objectors? Obscure jargon? Sorry, I’ve never been imprisoned (yet).

    3. Best solution I have heard is Sasha Volokh’s proposal to allow private prisons to compete with public prisons, then give the prisoners prison vouchers so they can pick their prison based on safety, rehabilitation, prison demographics, location, quality of food, etc.

  3. Qualified immunity for the win!

  4. OT – I just saw Slow Joe faulting Trump for this SolarWinds hack for, among other things, firing the head of cyber security right at a time when his vigilance and expertise was most needed. Which suggests that if there were a massive failure to do one’s job, firing the guy in charge who not only failed to do his job but confidently expressed the opinion that he was doing the finest job imaginable is not anywhere on Joe’s to-do list. I wonder if Joe will rehire Krebs?

    1. Yeah, it is the administrator that would have caught this, right. Between conference calls, meetings and press conferences, in his spare time he picks through code looking for weaknesses. The more they flog this, the more I am convinced this was the ChiCom’s and they are covering for them.

      1. Fair play, Democrats think President Trump is an IT expert that “picks through code looking for weaknesses” in his spare time. I am Joe will be looking at code for weaknesses in his spare too! (sarc)

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      2. You expect him to be running things correctly instead of being wrong about the most secure systems ever.

      3. At the end of the day he is the one responsible for the people and the controls and policies they put in place and operate by. If he’s not responsible for the shoddy security of the organization overall, who is?

      4. “I’m a great manager and leader but all my people suck.”

        He may not be the one looking for vulnerabilities and breaches but it’s his job to make sure someone is, and it’s done effectively.

    2. I wonder if Joe will rehire Krebs?

      Depends. How much money can Krebs get to Hunter by the end of the month?

      -jcr

  5. Just wait and see what happens when they put per-operative transsexuals in the women’s prison.

    1. Okay I’m waiting, what exactly are you insinuating would happen? Just because might have different genitalia than what currently constitutes the ‘norm’ doesn’t mean they are any less of a woman.

      In pre-medieval times, it probably made sense to judge people based on genitalia but we’ve come a very long way since then.
      Please try to grasp the simple concept that humanity comes is less ‘what is between your legs’ and ‘more what is between your ears’, if that’s even possible for you.

      1. No homosexual rape happens in prison? No guards every rape prisoners? All criminal prisoners are enlightened individuals? No criminal would ever lie and claim to be transsexual to be in a different sex prison? You live in utopia! Congrats.

      2. What is not simple is untangling your crummy typing/self-editing.

        And it’s not worth the effort, either. So I don’t bother.

      3. What’s between your ears is a vacuum around 10^-8 atmospheres.

        -jcr

  6. 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.

    “But since no other guard has been prosecuted for this exact thing, QI all round”.

    Also I heard the inmate who was “paralyzed” was faking it

  7. This country treats huge numbers of people like cattle and always has.

    Which side are you on? More justice or more law & order?

    1. Law & Order written to ensure Individual Justice over [WE]-mob-rule as it should’ve been all along.

    2. Is that why you’re such an ardent supporter of the slavery party?

      -jcr

  8. NO ONE cares except the prisoners and their families. Isn’t it curious the scathing report did not lead to a single criminal prosecution? If it did it is not in the story!

  9. Feminism pretty much destroyed any respect for sexual assault claims these days. What was that story about crying wolf?

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  12. We need to end prisons as a punishment at all except for violent crimes. That would solve most of these problems. Give them a good flogging for whatever fake crime they committed and send them on their way.

    Would be way more humane than the “enlightened and compassionate” way we deal with criminal justice today.

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