Video: ‘Beyond Punishment’ - Abuse and neglect in Florida women’s prison
An officer with a history of misconduct complaints was arrested Wednesday on charges that he sexually abused two inmates at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, authorities said.
The arrest marks the first time that an officer at the prison has been charged with a sex-related crime, and is the sixth arrest of a Lowell officer since the Miami Herald published a series in December about female prisoners who had been abused, threatened or forced to have sex with guards.
The yearlong investigation found that nearly every time an inmate filed a complaint against an officer, she was sent to confinement, a more restrictive form of incarceration where inmates are kept in a small cell with little more than the clothes on their back for weeks or even months. The women who complied with the officers’ sex demands, however, were rewarded with better treatment, with cheeseburgers and other free-world food, and with basic necessities, like soap and toilet paper, that were always in short supply.
Marion County Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway said the arrest Wednesday should be considered a warning to other officers at the prison.
“This is not just punishing them, it’s also sending a warning to officers that if you do this, there will be consequences,’’ Ridgway said.
After the series, the Florida Department of Corrections hired a new chief of investigations, and Ridgway assigned a prosecutor and an investigator from his office to work with the agency to help clean up the prison, the largest women’s compound in the nation.
“They have been working very closely with my people to put these cases together,” Ridgway said.
Officer Charles Bair, who was hired in 2008, is facing two counts of sexual misconduct, a third-degree felony. The 31-year-old officer was arrested Wednesday by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. Bail was set at $10,000.
The arrest affidavit alleges that Bair, whose wife is also a corrections officer, was having sex with two inmates over a five-month period, starting in August 2015. FDC’s office of Inspector General had “received numerous allegations of improper conduct to include sexual misconduct” about Bair, the affidavit said.
The Miami Herald reviewed hundreds of pages of records and interviewed more than 30 inmates for the series. It also examined four years of misconduct complaints. The women alleged a system of flagrant sexual extortion, mixed with habitual and illegal smuggling of drugs, tobacco and other contraband. There were also complaints of officers forcing women to flash them their breasts and participate in “breast-measuring contests.”
Despite being threatened, many women filed complaints that, for the most part, were dismissed as unfounded. The few officers who got caught were not prosecuted and rarely lost their jobs. They were sometimes transferred to another prison.
FDC Secretary Julie Jones installed a new warden at the prison in 2015 when an assistant warden, Marty Martinez, was fired for having “improper” relations with inmates, some of whom called him “Daddy.’’
The investigation showed that corrections officers felt that Martinez was spending an inordinate amount of his time with young, attractive women who were ushered into his office to spend time alone with him for up to an hour. Martinez was dismissed for conduct unbecoming an officer but was never charged with a crime.
Bair was among several officers whose names had been mentioned in complaints reviewed by the Herald. Another officer, Brian Mitchell, was the subject of an investigation in 2014, alleging that he was having an intimate relationship with an inmate in the dorm where he worked and that it continued after the inmate was released. That complaint was not sustained, but Mitchell was arrested in April on charges of bribery, unlawful compensation or reward for official behavior and unlawful use of a communications device.