The U.S. Department of Justice has opened a federal civil rights investigation into sexual misconduct by correctional officers as well as other abuses against women at Lowell Correctional Institution in Central Florida.
The investigation comes after years of complaints by inmates and activists, who organized in the aftermath of a 2015 Miami Herald investigation, “Beyond Punishment.’’ The series included interviews with more than three dozen former and current inmates at Lowell who described being forced to have sex with officers just to obtain basic necessities such as soap, toilet paper and sanitary napkins.
The women described a system of flagrant sexual extortion and other abuses. They said guards illegally smuggled drugs, tobacco and other contraband into the facility, used excessive force against inmates for minor infractions such as talking in the chow hall and forced women to perform degrading acts, such as exposing themselves. Among other allegations: Officers spit in their faces, slammed them into concrete walls, and often came into dorms and rampantly destroyed all their personal items, including family pictures, by pouring coffee or bleach on them.
The DOJ’s civil rights division took the unusual step of confirming the investigation in a flier distributed to activists and advocacy groups this week. The flier invited former inmates and families of current inmates to a meeting, which will be held at Marion Baptist Association in Ocala at 4 p.m. on Aug. 19.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“Your voice is important to us,’’ the flier said. “Your input and participation in the process is important. We invite everyone who may have a connection to Lowell to attend and share their experiences with us.’’
Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, called the DOJ involvement overdue.
“This is indicative of the fact that there must be serious concerns about the facility because the DOJ does not undertake investigations lightly or based on scant evidence. They must think the allegations they are aware of are severe and enough to take this step.’’
The Florida Department of Corrections, in a statement issued Wednesday, said it is committed to assisting the DOJ with the probe.
“The Department does not tolerate any form of abuse. We take all allegations of this type of behavior very seriously, and reported incidents are aggressively investigated by the Inspector General’s Office. We have taken significant steps at Lowell recently to increase inmate security,” said FDC spokesman Patrick Manderfield.
Activists were cautious, but optimistic.
“We need change; something needs to happen. At least we will be able to tell our stories to somebody who will listen,’’ said Kathy Jo Carlin, who is part of a forum on Facebook in which Lowell inmates and their families talk about their experiences.
DOJ investigators are also soliciting letters from inmates and their families at email@example.com, and they plan to visit the prison to speak to current inmates, said Carlin, who has spoken to the investigators. Her daughter, a current inmate, wrote one of the letters.
“I basically had a mental breakdown because it was so horrible to read. Now she only tells me stuff she knows I can deal with. There is lots of sex and relationships going on between officers and inmates. These women are starving for attention because they are treated so badly,’’ Carlin said.
Carlin said many family members are concerned that their loved ones may be retaliated against if they speak out. In the past, inmates who have filed complaints have often been placed in a form of confinement.
Carlin said the DOJ has assured her that there will be no retaliation.
Nancy Abudu, legal director at the ACLU of Florida, says it has been investigating complaints at the prison for years. In the past six months, most of the complaints have concerned poor medical treatment. In the Herald series, inmate sicknesses were often ignored or misdiagnosed. Some women who suffered minor illnesses that went untreated developed more serious complications and died, the Herald found.
Since the series ran, the prison has made some changes, including firing several officers or forcing them to resign.
Carlin said Hope Gartman, the current warden, has been responsive to complaints in recent months.
“She tries, and I think she sincerely cares about the inmates,’’ Carlin said. “But she doesn’t always know what’s going on on the ground with the guards. She always has to defend her staff. Whenever I’ve complained and emailed her she does fix it.’’
Manderfield said that the agency has instituted a number of reforms since the Herald series. They include: adding additional cameras with audio recording capability to prevent and detect misconduct; a new unit to investigate complaints by inmates and staff; and compliance audits by the USDOJ to ensure they are following federal law pertaining to the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
If You Go: The U.S. Department of Justice Community Meeting on Lowell Correctional Institution, Sunday Aug. 19, 4-6 p.m., Marion Baptist Association, 1520 NE 14th St., Ocala, Fla. 34478. For more info, call 833-341-4676 or email firstname.lastname@example.org