One by one, about 100 people — mothers, sisters, daughters and former inmates, some wearing “I survived Lowell’’ t-shirts — poured into an Ocala meeting hall Sunday night to do what few Florida inmates have been able to do:
Talk about brutal abuse, corruption and inhumane treatment behind the walls of one of Florida’s most notorious prisons, Lowell Correctional Institution for women.
For the first time, former inmates and their families were given a voice, and many of them had a lot to say to investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice about how rape, assault and the smuggling of drugs and other contraband by officers has become routine.
“There’s so many issues. I really hope you guys listen to us because I feel like this is the first time we’ve had a platform, there’s so many stories,’’ said Debra Bennett, a former inmate.
In July, the U.S. Department of Justice opened a federal civil rights investigation into sexual abuse of inmates and other possible constitutional violations at the Central Florida prison.
“The fact that you have this many people here on a Sunday afternoon is amazing. It says something about the system. There’s something wrong. They definitely need to be investigated on many levels,’’ said Bernie Brewer, whose daughter is serving nine years at Lowell for a fatal drunk driving accident.
Brewer and his wife, Nancy, described how their daughter, who had a college degree in finance, made one horrible mistake and is being punished — not just by being locked up, but by corrections officers who verbally and physically attack women at Lowell, the second-largest women’s prison in the country.
“If you’re talked down to like you don’t matter day after day, day in and day out, how are you supposed to get out and feel good about yourself as a person? This is not about rehabilitation. This is about punishment. It’s about keeping you down, keeping you afraid,’’ said Kathy Carlin, a parent.
The community meeting was set up by DOJ investigators who wanted to hear from families as part of their probe into whether there is a pattern or practice of civil rights abuses and other unlawful conduct at the prison. That conduct was documented in a series of Miami Herald stories called Beyond Punishment, which described how inmates are threatened with beatings, receive substandard medical care and coerced into sex with male guards in exchange for necessities like soap, toilet paper and sanitary napkins.
DOJ representatives said they are focusing on whether the Florida Department of Corrections has ignored, covered up or dismissed widespread complaints of sexual misconduct by officers, administrators and staff.
Rachel Kalfin, an inmate who was released last year, told DOJ investigators she spent 165 days in confinement — isolation from other inmates — after reporting that she was sexually assaulted by a corrections officer. She filed a complaint that was dismissed, she said.
“They called me a liar, and then my mail to my family was being thrown away,’’ she said. “I have friends who are still there who are afraid to speak up because they’re afraid their parents aren’t going to get their mail.’’
At Lowell on Sunday, visitors leaving the prison reported that, for the past week, inmates had been directed to scrub the floors, pressure wash dorms and brighten up the drab facility in preparation for DOJ’s visit on Monday. Dirty mattresses were replaced and inmates were also given a new menu of more healthy food, they said.
There were also reports that the agency distributed pamphlets about the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to guards, directing them to memorize FDC’s policies regarding sexual abuse.
At the meeting, Laura Cowall, an attorney with the Justice Department, emphasized that the inquiry is not a criminal investigation but rather one that may result in a report, or a public notice, identifying any unconstitutional practices at the prison. If that happens, she said, the DOJ would work with the Florida Department of Corrections and prison advocates to come up with a plan to address the deficiencies.
There is no timetable for the examination, she said.
“Our investigation is going to be independent, thorough and fair,’’ Cowall said, adding that they were examining “how inmates report sex abuse and how Lowell responds to those reports.’’
She said the investigators would not necessarily confine their inquiry to sexual abuse if they find additional constitutional violations at the prison.
That prompted one family member to question whether the investigation will produce any substantive changes since it will not hold officers and staff responsible for inmates who have been beaten, raped or died as a result of medical neglect.
“I can give you a whole list of questions to ask: ‘Has one person been murdered by DOC personnel at this prison? Has one person been beaten almost to death by DOC personnel? Are they bringing in drugs to the inmates?’ Just answer those questions and I can tell you the answer to every one of those questions is going to be yes,’’ he said.
The man, whose girlfriend is at the prison, did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal against her by correctional officials. Many people in the audience said they, too, were apprehensive about speaking for the same reason.
“They are scared to talk. How can you guarantee their safety? They are scared in there. Some of them are teenagers,’’ shouted one family member.
Cowall tried to assure the audience that retaliation would not be tolerated by the Department of Justice, pointing out that it is against the law for anyone to impede a federal investigation.
Despite their fears, many family members agreed to meet and speak privately with investigators, who promised to keep their identities — and the identities of their loved ones — confidential.
“It’s a step. It’s a start of raising awareness of what is actually going on at Lowell Correctional facility with the women,’’ Carlin said. “ Not only is there sexual abuse and sexual harassment going on, there’s all kinds of medical issues, nutritional issues... . And so I have a lot of hope that this will do something.’’
Anyone who would like to contact the Justice Department about Lowell can email: Community.Lowell@usdoj.gov