In late December 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded that there is “reasonable cause” to believe that Lowell Correctional Institution (LCI), Ocala, Florida, fails to protect inmates from sexual abuse by staff members. LCI, which opened in 1956, is the second-largest and oldest female prison in the country.
Mark Inch, the Florida Corrections Secretary, told the state Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on January 14 that no action has been taken to remedy this situation. That lack of action is problematic, as the DOJ put prison officials on notice that the concerns require satisfactory remediation within six weeks. Failure to do so will result in legal consequences.
Inch told the subcommittee that he disagreed with the DOJ’s conclusions. He downplayed the number of sexual abuse allegations, saying that federal investigators “overgeneralized” them and concluded the abuse was systemic rather than “finite.”
Sexual Abuse Severe and Prevalent
The DOJ report calls the sexual abuse at LCI “severe and prevalent.” It cites inmates forced to perform sexual acts with male corrections officers in exchange for basic necessities such as toilet paper or their prescription medications. Those refusing to comply are threatened with beatings and even death.
At the very least, they are threatened with loss of visitation by their children. Male guards go through the dormitories and showers, groping and raping their victims. Those guards found sexually abusing inmates were often permitted to retain their jobs.
When an inmate formally complains about sexual abuse, an investigation takes place. However, during that period, which may take as much as six months to complete, the inmate is placed in confinement and loses phone and visiting privileges. The process deters women from filing formal complaints. The DOJ report states that women filing complaints should not lose their privileges when held in such confinement.
The DOJ noted that the Florida DOC has been aware of the pattern of sexual abuse by staff against inmates at LCI since 2006. Despite this notice, the DOC failed to take timely action. It is still failing to do so.
Repeat Sexual Offenders
Several corrections officers were repeatedly alleged to have committed sexual offenses, yet the state DOC did nothing. One lieutenant was accused of abusing many prisoners over a period of years, yet kept his position at LCI until 2019 when he was arrested for sexually molesting two underage girls in his community. This same individual was accused of beating an LCI prisoner so badly that she ended up a quadriplegic. In this case, the Florida DOC settled a lawsuit in 2020 for $4.65 million.
In 2019, another corrections officer resigned after facing complaints filed by 10 different inmates dating back to 2013. The allegations included providing contraband, including pills, in exchange for sex. Staff discipline logs show that in April and May 2017 alone, 18 employees faced discipline for sexually-oriented violations. One employee was arrested for having a sexual relationship with an inmate.
Among the remedial actions demanded by the DOJ is the widespread installation of video surveillance cameras. Inmates allege that guards take women into areas not under such surveillance to rape and sodomize victims. The prison is already understaffed, and during these acts, another guard often stands as a lookout for the perpetrator. The physical plant is rife with such surveillance blind spots.
The report states that designated security posts are often left vacant. Pay is extremely low (fast food workers earn more) and attrition rates are high.
Recording keeping is often inadequate. In fact, there is no tracking of the number of sexual abuse claims against individual corrections officers. The DOJ’s remedial measures include ensuring inmates receive accurate and complete information on accessing all confidential reporting options, and that those reporting sexual abuse have access to victim advocates and emotional support services. LCI must develop and implement a system for monitoring of any retaliation of inmates reporting such abuse.
What will happen remains to be seen should Inch continue to ignore the DOJ’s mandate to put these remedial measures in place in the time allotted.
If you or a loved one suffered catastrophic injuries or sexual assault at the hands of the police, prison guards or jail staff, you may be entitled to damages. Visit our inmate abuse information page for more details.
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