Officials knew about sexual abuse at Lowell prison —and did nothing. System must have independent oversight | Opinion

A horrifying new report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) reveals that, for more than a decade, Florida’s political leaders and the state Department of Corrections (FDC) have ignored the sexual abuse by staff, including rape, of incarcerated women at the Lowell Correctional Institution.

The report is shocking, but not surprising to anyone who’s paid attention to Florida’s prison system. Its findings should, at a minimum, finally prompt the Legislature to establish independent oversight of Florida’s prisons.

According to DOJ, Florida Corrections was made aware of systemic sexual abuse of Lowell prisoners by staff as early as 2006, but failed to take action to remedy the problem. In fact, the report notes the Department created a safe harbor for some of the worst offenders.

One sergeant at Lowell was accused in 2017 of sexually abusing a prisoner, “causing lesions on the prisoner’s throat from oral sex, and then retaliating against the prisoner when she refused his sexual advances.” FDC confirmed the prisoner’s injuries, but failed to complete the investigation into the allegation. That sergeant remained employed until his arrest earlier this year — for sexual misconduct with a different woman.

Far from an “isolated incident,” DOJ found a “long-standing pattern” of such incidents at Lowell. In 2018, a sergeant allegedly raped a prisoner in a storage area, “pull[ing] [her] pants down and forc[ing] his penis in anally.”

DOJ found it is common for employees at Lowell to bribe women with contraband in exchange for sex, compel women into abusive sexual “relationships” and watch women shower and use the toilet. Then they threaten the women with solitary confinement if they report the abuse.

Last year, after an employee at Lowell beat a woman until she was paralyzed from the neck down, FAMM and Florida Cares invited women who had been incarcerated at Lowell, and families of women currently incarcerated, to share their stories. Though I had long known of Lowell’s despicable reputation, it was jarring to hear the stories from those who actually lived these experiences. Particularly haunting was listening to brave women name the FDC employees who raped them and hearing the responses to those names from the audience. They knew.

Actually, anyone who wanted to know what was happening at Lowell could easily have learned this information. They just needed to listen to the women incarcerated there and their families, who have been begging anyone and everyone for 15 years to put an end to the horror at Lowell.

Since FDC was made aware that women in its care were being raped, four people have served as Florida’s governor and seven have served as FDC secretary. Each knew, or should have known, this was happening. None of them did anything to stop it.

The DOJ report identified a handful of what it called “minimal remedial measures” necessary to protect women from further sexual abuse at Lowell. In truth, even these measures are insufficient. The appalling pattern of abuse and neglect identified by the Justice report reveals inherent dysfunction, a rot at the department’s core.

This is not a pruning-shears problem, it’s a backhoe problem. The Department of Corrections has been given many opportunities to prove it can police itself. The DOJ report proves it cannot.

The Legislature should have long ago established an independent body to oversee Florida’s prisons. This body must be given the power to enter and inspect prisons without notice, conduct confidential interviews with incarcerated people and prison staff, recommend improvements and monitor their implementation, access data and records — and even help resolve complaints from families and prisoners. Such oversight helps identify and prevent problems, and makes prisons safer places for prisoners and corrections officials alike.

Lawmakers from both political parties rightly demand accountability and transparency in all state governmental agencies. Florida’s Department of Corrections should not be excused. The unchecked, systemic sexual abuse documented in the DOJ report must never be allowed to happen in a taxpayer-funded agency of our state government, and yet failure to establish independent oversight all but guarantees that it will.

And, next time, no one will be able to say that they didn’t know what was happening.

Greg Newburn is the Florida director of Policy for FAMM, a national nonpartisan advocacy organization that promotes fair and effective criminal-justice policies.