In Florida prisons, guards can also be the criminals

Theresa Livengood, an inmate at Lowell Correctional Institution, in Ocala, breaks down in tears as she talks about abuse at the facility.
Theresa Livengood, an inmate at Lowell Correctional Institution, in Ocala, breaks down in tears as she talks about abuse at the facility. emichot@miamiherald.com

The inmates at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala are criminals. They broke the rules of civil society. Good riddance, right?

But when you read in Sunday’s In Depth section the first installment of Beyond Punishment, a Miami Herald series by investigative reporter Julie Brown and photo journalist Emily Michot, who interviewed former inmates of the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, the largest women’s prison in the nation, your stomach will turn — or should. After all, your tax dollars are financing a prison where officers from the Florida Department of Corrections allegedly abuse inmates sexually, physically and psychologically, dehumanizing them at their will.

So much for rehabilitation.

Lowell is a hellacious place in the corrections system where, “Correcting has come to halt,” prison expert Ron McAndrew told the Editorial Board.

The failures reach back across several gubernatorial administrations. And they should stop — now — with this one.

After scandals and a cry for the changes instituted in the 1970s, Florida’s correctional system again deteriorated under the last three governors, who favored warehousing inmates instead of helping rehabilitate the most able. Then, as the recession forced budget cuts, the DOC bore the brunt of the slashing. For instance, corrections officers have not received a pay raise in eight years. Their job, an extremely difficult one, is no longer a profession, but a steppingstone for some to get accredited then move on.

Lowell, today, is bearing the poisoned fruits of budget cuts, neglect and the absence of accountability. No one should be fooled by the rolling green hills and pristine horse farms amid which the prison sits. With 2,696 inmates in its sprawling maze of drab, gray, unairconditioned buildings, Lowell houses corruption, torment and sexual abuse.

Documents show inmates have complained that officers call them whores, bitches and porch monkeys — and that’s the least of it. Male staffers make women flash their breasts, force them to beg for toilet paper, soap and sanitary napkins. And, of course, they use their positions of power to force them to have sex. Complaints filed between 2011 and May 2015, allege that sex happens in bathrooms, closets, the laundry and officers’ stations. Men go into dorms in the middle of the night, inmates say, and take them to isolated areas.

Many women comply, feeling they have no choice; others call it a matter of survival that scores them cigarettes, drugs and money. “It’s like a lion with a bunch of gazelles,” said one disgusted former inmate.

It’s also rape, plain and simple. It’s a crime and it’s unacceptable.

Warden Angela Gordon insists it’s not a hell hole. But are all these documented accounts pure fiction? DOC doesn’t seem to want to know. Over and over, inmate complaints have landed in DOC’s Inspector General’s Office, which is assigned to investigate wrongdoing. And over and over, the complaints of abuse — and even suspicious deaths — are not given any credence, there’s little followup.

“It’s the fox investigating the fox,” Mr. McAndrew said. He’s correct. DOC cannot — and should not — police itself. And the Florida Department of Law Enforcement may be too close to DOC to do so. After reading this Herald series, and before there is more sexual abuse and deaths in state prisons, officials need to act. And if they don’t, the U.S. Department of Justice needs to step in and do it for them.

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