The Florida Department of Corrections pledged on Monday to “thoroughly review” allegations of wrongdoing at Lowell Correctional Institution, the nation’s largest women’s prison, after a story in Sunday’s Miami Herald detailed instances of corruption, coerced sex and trading of sex for contraband.
The allegations came in the first installment of a Miami Herald series, Beyond Punishment. Additional installments are planned for Wednesday and the coming weekend.
The story quoted multiple inmates who said they were forced to engage in sex acts with corrections officers, and said if they complained they were locked away in confinement — a more restrictive form of incarceration — until they recanted.
Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones issued a written statement saying reforms implemented under her leadership have made Lowell a safer place, but added she plans to “thoroughly review the disturbing allegations brought forward by the Miami Herald to ensure that the appropriate action is taken against any individual bearing responsibility for misconduct.”
Jones, who took over the department in January, promised to provide “relevant updates” to the public as the review moves forward.
Jones criticized the Herald, saying it should have submitted its findings to authorities rather than assemble them into an investigative series that took months to produce. “This is not the course of action the newspaper chose to take,” she said.
Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, executive editor of the Miami Herald, said: “Our role as journalists is to investigate and report on critical issues that might otherwise go unnoticed. We did that for this series, using hundreds of records obtained from the Department of Corrections, as well as scores of interviews. Had a representative from corrections agreed to our many requests for an interview before publication, they would have learned about the issues raised by our reporting.”
In recent weeks, Jones had been asked to comment on the Herald’s findings, but her spokesman said she could not because of an illness in her family. The department rejected requests to make her top deputy, Ricky Dixon, available for an interview.
Meanwhile, Pam Bondi, Florida attorney general of Florida, said her office will not look into the alleged corruption and sexual misconduct at Lowell because they involve “a single-judicial circuit and should be referred to the Department of Corrections and the State Attorney’s Office in Marion County.”
The series became a topic of discussion Monday at a “justice summit” in Sarasota hosted by the Florida Smart Justice Alliance. Jones was the keynote speaker. Two legislators in attendance said they believe Jones has been helping cut down on the culture of corruption in Florida prisons. One of them said the department is still in in need of reform.
“I think it’s going to mean top-to-bottom changes. I think we’re going to see a substantial shift in a variety of different areas of policy, specifically highlighted in that [Herald] report,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “From how we deal with corrections officers to sentencing to facilities. All of those areas I would call in crisis and in need of reform.”
He said reform might not involve more money but rather a “reorganization of resources to spend money more effectively.” He said one strategy might be to push for reevaluation of current sentencing practices “so prisons can spend more money on paying officers rather than thousands of dollars on inmates that have no business being housed in the correctional system.”
He added: “We have corrections officers right now that are competing with Walmart greeters as far as the pay for the job. And imagine how much more difficult it is to be a corrections officer.”
Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, added that one possible remedy might be more frequent inspections of the prison.
The series reported that of the states with the 10 largest corrections departments, Florida has a lower starting salary for corrections officers than all but one.
However, Jones did not ask for any increase in pay for corrections officers in her proposed 2016-17 budget, even though officers have not had a raise in eight years. Gov. Rick Scott did not include any pay increase in his recommendations to the Legislature.
An audit report commissioned by the Legislature and released last week, and another released by the agency in September found that staffing levels at the FDC are dangerously low and that department policies routinely allow inexperienced officers to do the most difficult assignments.
Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.