DOJ: Florida Women’s Prison Subjects Prisoners to Unconstitutional Risk of Sexual Abuse
Rep. Diane Hart filed legislation in January 2021 to create a volunteer Citizens Oversight Council to conduct regular unannounced visits and interview prison staff, while while Rep. Yvonne Hinson (D-Gainesville) sponsored another bill in February 2021 to create a body-camera pilot program at LCI.
The December 22, 2020, report on the findings of a federal investigation at LCI concluded that conditions at the Ocala prison probably violate the federal Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
LCI, opened in 1956, is the oldest women’s prison in Florida and the largest in the U.S., with 2,264 prisoners. The federal investigation, which began in April 2018, was conducted by the Civil Rights Division of the federal Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida.
After two on-site, four-day reviews and 108,505 pages of documents, investigators concluded that the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) had “failed to protect women prisoners from sexual abuse by staff” and “exposed women prisoners to substantial risk of serious harm from sexual abuse.”
FDOC, the report added, “has documented and been aware of a pattern or practice of staff sexual abuse of Lowell prisoners since at least 2006.”
But it took the Miami Herald’s 2015 series “Beyond Punishment” to goad FDOC to take any action, producing 161 investigations of staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse and sexual harassment at LCI between 2015 and 2019. Only eight resulted in the arrest of a guard, however.
“In several cases, [guards] resigned in lieu of separation for cause or resigned while under investigation for misconduct,” federal investigators recounted, noting that “more than two dozen more officers were dismissed due to ‘agency policy’ or for committing felony or misdemeanor perjury or for making false statements.”
“Dozens more (cases) contained detailed, credible allegations of sexual abuse,” the investigators’ report continued, including:
• a sergeant who ripped a prisoner’s clothes off and sodomized her;
• another guard who forced a prisoner outside and onto the ground before shoving his erect penis in her mouth; and
• a guard with a history of sexual abuse complaints who woke a prisoner in the middle of the night to have sex with her in exchange for prescription drugs.
Prisoners also reported that guards demanded they “undress in front of them, sometimes in exchange for basic necessities, such as toilet paper.” Some guards reportedly even watched prisoners use the toilet or shower.
But investigators also said that these were not isolated allegations and that “prisoners spoke of sex between staff and prisoners as a regular event, suggesting a normalization of sexual abuse by staff.”
FDOC disciplinary logs at LCI for April and May 2017 indicate that at least 18 guards and other staff members faced discipline for violations related to the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
Between November 2017 and March 2019, at least a dozen guards and staff members were placed on LCI’s “no inmate contact” list for “credibly alleged or a confirmed misconduct apparently of a sexual nature.” Some of those guards and staff members were arrested, terminated, or resigned while under investigation. Others remained employed at LCI or were transferred to other Florida prisons.
In one case, a lieutenant at LCI was repeatedly accused of sexually abusing multiple prisoners over several years, yet he remained in his position until his 2019 arrest for sexually molesting two minor girls in the community. A 2017 prisoner’s complaint against the same lieutenant had resulted only in the prisoner’s transfer. Two additional incidents from 2018 remained open FDOC investigations at the time of the lieutenant’s November 2019 arrest.
The lieutenant was also involved in the August 2019 unjustified use of excessive force against prisoner Cheryl Weiner, who was left a quadriplegic from the incident and later reached a $4.65 million settlement with FDOC.
Another example cited by federal investigators involved a sergeant who was arrested in July 2020 and charged with sexual misconduct, after he admitted to engaging in oral sex with a prisoner in April 2020 in the maintenance room of an LCI dormitory.
That guard had been under investigation by FDOC since 2017 for sexually abusing another prisoner, after it was confirmed that lesions on her throat resulted from being forced to perform oral sex, allegedly on him. But FDOC failed to complete that investigation, allowing the sergeant to remain employed until his subsequent arrest.
“We are so used to Lowell getting away with everything,” said Debra Bennett, who served time at LCF and now runs a nonprofit called Change Comes Now, focused on helping women at the prison. “It’s got to stop now. I hope this is a big hammer on top of that prison.”
Federal investigators concluded that LCI has an inadequate system for preventing, detecting, and responding to sexual abuse, leaving prisoners at substantial risk of serious harm from staff sexual abuse—a risk that exists because the prison “(1) provides inadequate supervision of prisoners, which presents opportunities to occur; (2) deters prisoners from reporting staff sexual abuse due to the threat of retaliation; (3) fails to respond with appropriate investigations when women do report abuse; and (4) fails to provide effective and confidential reporting systems.”
“A lack of gender-responsive and trauma-informed policies and practices exacerbates these problems and exposes victims to additional harm,” the investigators’ report added.
“Prison officials have a constitutional duty to protect prisoners from harm, including sexual abuse by staff,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Eric Dreiband, who added that DOJ “will not tolerate it.”
The federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) authorizes DOJ to act against any U.S. prison or jail proven to exhibit a pattern and practice of civil rights abuse against people confined there. Even as DOJ was conducting its investigation at LCI, the report said, sexual abuse and intimidation there continued. Yet officials stopped short of holding anyone criminally responsible for their actions.
“They could never make this a criminal case because they would have to arrest everybody,” Bennett said. “That prison is so corrupt that everyone is in on it.”
The prison was given 49 days from the release of the December report to institute recommended remedial measures or face legal action. FDOC Secretary Mark Inch said he welcomed the investigators’ findings and would gladly work with DOJ to rectify the situation. As of PLN’s publication date, DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has not yet taken any action.
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