Feds: Florida Prison Staff Beat and Raped Women Inmates

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

(CN) — Federal prosecutors accused Florida prison officials of failing to protect women inmates from sexual abuse by correctional officers in a searing report released Tuesday. 

The Justice Department investigation report details beatings and rapes of female prisoners at Lowell Correctional Institution, located in Ocala. State prison officials neglected to address the crimes, despite “systemic” sexual abuse that goes back to at least 2006, according to the report.

Lowell is the largest women’s prison in the country and houses nearly 1,500 inmates. 

Throughout its 36 pages, the report lists incidents of sexual abuse against prisoners by officers as recently as April.

In that case, a sergeant engaged in oral sex in a maintenance room with a prisoner. Another inmate accused the same sergeant of harming her throat during oral sex in 2017, federal prosecutors say. The Florida Department of Corrections never completed an investigation of that incident.

But the conduct of that officer, who was arrested in July, is not an isolated incident, the report states.

In 2018, another sergeant allegedly raped a woman inmate in a storage area. That same year, an officer took an inmate to an outdoor area and forced her to perform oral sex. In another 2018 incident, an officer forced a woman to have sex in a bathroom in exchange for a drug that treats opioid withdrawal.

One lieutenant had multiple sexual abuse allegations lodged against him over a period of several years but remained on the job until he was arrested last year for allegedly molesting children in the surrounding community.

The report is the culmination of a two-year investigation by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida. Investigators, including a former warden of a women’s prison, combed through thousands of pages of documents and photographic evidence from the Department of Corrections and conducted on-site interviews of staff and prisoners.

In addition to the documented cases of sexual coercion and rape, many prisoners told federal investigators about daily acts of sexual harassment and abuse such as groping and watching inmates while they shower.

Inmates who objected to the abuse were threatened with solitary confinement or withholding of basic necessities like toilet paper.

The report also lists numerous incidents of violence, including slamming a female inmate’s head into a wall and a beating that left a prisoner paralyzed.

Of the 161 incidents investigated by state prison officials between 2015 and 2019, only eight resulted in the officer’s arrest, according to the report.

“In some cases, abuse allegations were channeled through alleged abusers, who were tasked with writing up incident reports on behalf of alleged victims,” the report states.

A Department of Corrections spokesperson declined to comment and indicated the agency plans to release a statement soon.

“Prison officials have a constitutional duty to protect prisoners from harm, including sexual abuse by staff,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, when announcing the report. “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,” he added. “This illegal and indecent treatment of women must end, and the Department of Justice will not tolerate it.”

Investigators say the prison must make substantial changes, such as ensuring adequate staffing levels and installing more surveillance cameras. In some cases, the report notes, the configuration of the dormitories allows male staff to view women prisoners’ showers and toilets, including in the youthful inmate dormitory.

U.S. Attorney Maria Chapa Lopez said the investigation is a “first step towards putting an end to sexual abuse at the Lowell Correctional Institution.”

If the prison does not act on the report’s findings within 49 days, federal prosecutors can file a civil rights lawsuit against state officials.

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