The United States Department of Justice on Tuesday released a scathing report alleging that Florida’s largest women’s prison, located in Ocala, has repeatedly failed to protect inmates from being sexually assaulted by staff.
As part of an investigation that dates to 2018, the DOJ said it found that the Florida Department of Corrections has documented and been aware of a pattern or practice of staff sexual abuse of Lowell Correctional Institution prisoners since at least 2006.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida on Tuesday said that there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions at Lowell violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment.
The department also said there is reasonable cause to believe that Lowell still fails to protect prisoners from sexual abuse by the facility’s staff.
Lowell is the oldest women’s prison in Florida, having opened in 1956, and is the largest women’s prison in the country.
“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,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, for the Civil Rights Division.
The Justice Department alleges that between 2017 and the present, Lowell sergeants, corrections officers and other staff “have committed notorious acts of sexual abuse, including rape, against prisoners.”
The report from the DOJ said that at Lowell It is common for officers to grope prisoners, bribe prisoners with drugs, cigarettes, food and makeup in exchange for sex and to compel prisoners into ongoing abusive sexual relationships.
The department also claims that staff threatened prisoners with solitary confinement if they report sexual abuse.
The DOJ report alleges that prison officials have known about the risk to prisoners for years, but ignored it.
“Officials at FDOC and Lowell have been on notice of incidents of staff sexual abuse of prisoners for years and have failed to reasonably address the deficiencies that enabled the abuse to occur,” the report said.
The Justice Department provided the prison with written notice and suggested minimum remedial measures that include installing additional video surveillance and adopting new policies to protect inmates.