DOJ Launches Investigation into Abuse at Florida Women’s Prison
Prompted by claims of sexual abuse highlighted in a 2015 Miami Herald news report, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has launched an investigation into Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution (LCI), the largest prison for women in the state and the second-largest in the nation.
The DOJ’s probe of LCI mirrors its 2013 investigation at Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. PLN previously reported on the abuses at Tutwiler, where prisoners were subjected to a mix of understaffing, overcrowding, substandard healthcare and sexual abuse by staff members. The problems were so flagrant that the facility ranked as one of the nation’s ten worst prisons for two decades. [See: PLN, July 2015, p.46; Oct. 2013, p.26].
As a first step in addressing similar issues reported at LCI, in April 2018 the DOJ sent a letter announcing its investigation to Florida Governor Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) Secretary Julie Jones.
Three months later, the DOJ subpoenaed records ranging from policy and training manuals to a list of LCI employees who were terminated, transferred, suspended or had resigned as of July 2015, when the Herald published its investigative report titled “Beyond Punishment.”
More than 36 former and current LCI prisoners interviewed by the newspaper reported that guards not only engaged in sexual misconduct but also subjected them to other forms of abuse – spitting in their faces, slamming them into walls and entering dorms to destroy personal items, including family pictures, by pouring coffee or bleach on them.
The DOJ’s investigation indicates that the agency has “serious concerns about the facility because the DOJ does not undertake investigations lightly or based on scant evidence,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In August 2018, DOJ investigators conducted a public meeting in Ocala that was attended by about 100 people; one wore an “I Survived Lowell” T-shirt. While some family members feared that speaking publicly would subject their incarcerated loved ones to further abuse, others who spoke described how the FDOC had failed to respond to complaints of staff misconduct.
Former LCI prisoner Rachel Kalfin, released in 2017, testified that she was held in isolation for 165 days after reporting a sexual assault by a guard. She filed a complaint, which was dismissed.
“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.”
Kathy Carlin, the parent of another LCI prisoner, wondered how anyone is supposed to “get out and feel good about [herself] as a person” after being “talked down to like you don’t matter day after day.” What LCI prisoners endure is “not about rehabilitation,” she insisted. “It’s about punishment. It’s about keeping you down, keeping you afraid.”
Bernie Brewer and his wife, Nancy, described physical and verbal abuse by LCI guards against their daughter, who is serving a nine-year sentence for a fatal DWI crash.
“The fact that you have this many people here on a Sunday afternoon is amazing,” Brewer said of the meeting. “It says something about the system. There’s something wrong. They definitely need to be investigated on many levels.”
DOJ attorney Laura Cowall explained to those in attendance that the investigation is only looking into unconstitutional practices – including but not limited to sexual abuse – and warned that any criminal charges would only follow a further criminal inquiry. But she promised the investigation would be “independent, thorough and fair.”
Visitors leaving LCI the same day of the meeting reported that prisoners had spent the prior week cleaning and repairing the facility in preparation for DOJ investigators, receiving a new and healthier menu as well.
After the meeting, FDOC spokesman Patrick Manderfield said 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,” Manderfield added.
Those steps include beefed up staffing and video surveillance. LCI prisoners described to the Herald how they were regularly forced to have sex with guards in closets and showers, which were not covered by surveillance cameras, in order to receive basic hygiene items such as soap, toilet paper and sanitary napkins – a form of sexual exploitation.
In an August 16, 2018 Herald article, former LCI prisoner Luana Santos said she was placed in solitary after being sexually harassed by assistant warden Marty Martinez. The newspaper reported that four lawsuits filed by LCI prisoners had been settled by the FDOC for almost $200,000. Martinez was fired in 2015 but did not face criminal charges. [See: PLN, Feb. 2016, p.1]. At the time, FDOC Secretary Julie Jones admitted that LCI was “poorly managed.”
LCI officials could not produce for the Herald any protocol for disciplining guards who were accused of engaging in sexual misconduct. Instead, they were transferred to other FDOC prisons and the complaints were usually dismissed without investigation.
Julia Abbate, former Deputy Chief of the DOJ’s Special Litigation Section, Civil Rights Division, agreed that the problems at LCI are not limited to “one or two bad actors” but reflect “a huge cultural problem in the way [prison officials] handle sexual abuse.” Now serving as director of national advocacy for Just Detention International, a non-profit that works to end sexual abuse of prisoners, Abbate expressed confidence that her former agency would conduct a “thorough investigation” at LCI.
“They examine documents and go on site with a team of experts for typically a week, then they go back to their desk and decide whether the pattern or practice exists and if so, what are they and how they support those conclusions,” she explained. “If findings are made of constitutional violations, they don’t pull any punches.”
The DOJ’s investigation could last months or even years.
In September 2018, a trainee guard at LCI was arrested for engaging in sexual misconduct. Nicholas Seaborn Jefferson, 26, admitted he had sex with a prisoner twice in exchange for giving her drugs. He was jailed on a $10,000 bond.
Sources: Miami Herald, www.foxnews.com, www.tampabay.com, www.gainesville.com