For nearly two decades, the inmates inside Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama were raped, sodomized, forced to engage in oral sex and fondled by corrections officers as state corrections officials looked the other way.
In 2013, the prison was considered among the 10 worst prisons in the nation. At least one third of its staff was suspected of sexual misconduct, and inmates who dared to report the abuse were punished by being locked in confinement, a more restrictive form of incarceration.
Understaffing, poor medical care, inadequate sanitary supplies, overcrowding and poor security fostered an environment where sexual violence and abuse thrived, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, which began a civil-rights investigation at the prison in 2013.
The Tutwiler investigation in Alabama mirrors what the Justice Department is now doing at Lowell Correctional Institution in Central Florida, where female inmates have complained for years about sexual, physical and mental abuse inflicted by corrections officers.
"It appears that Lowell has a huge problem with sexual abuse of prisoners. Normally, at womens’ prisons, you get one or two bad actors, but it seems that Lowell has a real cultural problem, and the Florida Department of Corrections, in general, has a huge cultural problem in the way they handle sexual abuse,’’ said Julia Abbate, the former deputy chief in charge of corrections in DOJ’s civil rights division.
Abbate, who is now national advocacy director for Just Detention International, a health and human rights organization that works to end sexual abuse in jails and prisons, said Lowell has been on the Justice Department’s radar for several years.
In April, John Gore, acting attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice, sent a letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, informing him, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Julie Jones, secretary for the Department of Corrections, that the department had launched a federal probe into conditions at Lowell.
"We are obliged to determine whether there are systemic violations of the Constitution of the United States ... focusing on Lowell’s ability to protect prisoners from sexual abuse,’’ Gore wrote.
In July, DOJ’s civil rights division sent a subpoena to Florida’s Department of Corrections, demanding records ranging from policy and training manuals to a listing of staff members who were terminated, transferred, suspended or resigned from the prison as of July 1, 2015.
Abbate said that when DOJ’s Civil Rights Division receives authorization to investigate, it means that there is cause to believe that inmates are being subjected to conditions that deprive them of their constitutional rights — in this case, in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment protection against Cruel and Unusual Punishment.
Federal investigations follow a standard trajectory that takes anywhere from two to five years. Abbate said it begins when the DOJ sends a notification letter to state officials informing them the department has opened an investigation and outlining what they intend to do.
The procedure calls for the department to visit the prison, inspect conditions and to interview inmates, she said. A letter sent to the FDC in May said the visit would occur July 23-27, although the Herald has been told the tour will happen on the 20th of this month.
"They do a pretty thorough investigation. 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 do they support those conclusions,’’ she said.
A letter of findings is then drawn up.
"If findings are made of constitutional violations, they don’t pull any punches,’’ Abbate said.
As part of the probe, the DOJ is holding a community meeting on Aug. 19. Investigators are inviting former inmates and family members of current inmates to the meeting at the Marion Baptist Association in Ocala.
The DOJ reached an agreement with the state of Alabama and its corrections department calling for a series of reforms to protect inmates. It concluded that Tutwiler guards had violated prisoners’ rights.
At Tutwiler, DOJ found that inmates lived in an environment of repeated, open and forced sexual behavior by corrections officers. Prison officials were criticized for failing to address the problems despite repeated complaints. The DOJ was especially critical of state corrections officials who "demonstrated a clear deliberate indifference to the harm and substantial risk of harm to women prisoners.’’
The probe found that Alabama had been on notice of the abuse for more than 18 years but had chosen to ignore them.
The Lowell investigation comes after years of complaints by inmates and activists, who organized in the aftermath of a 2015 Miami Herald investigation, "Beyond Punishment.’’ The series included interviews with more than three dozen former and current inmates at Lowell who described being forced to have sex with officers just to obtain basic necessities such as soap, toilet paper and sanitary napkins.
In announcing the community meeting, the DOJ said it hoped inmates and their families would be forthcoming about the problems at Lowell.
"Your voice is important to us,’’ a flier said. "Your input and participation in the process is important. We invite everyone who may have a connection to Lowell to attend and share their experiences with us.’’
Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, called the DOJ involvement overdue.
"This is indicative of the fact that there must be serious concerns about the facility because the DOJ does not undertake investigations lightly or based on scant evidence. They must think the allegations they are aware of are severe and enough to take this step.’’
The Florida Department of Corrections, in a statement issued Wednesday, said it is committed to assisting the DOJ with the probe.
"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," said FDC spokesman Patrick Manderfield.
The Herald investigation found that there was a lack of protocol for punishing corrections officers for sexual misconduct, and that many officers with repeated offenses were simply transferred to other prisons. Most complaints by inmates were either not investigated at all or were closed as unsubstantiated.
Corrections officers often forced the inmates to have sex in places out of the view of surveillance cameras, such as in closets and showers, the Herald found.
After the series was published, the FDC said it had installed additional cameras in the prison, that it had beefed up staffing and that it was more aggressively monitoring and investigating complaints of abuse.
If you go
The U.S. Department of Justice Community Meeting on Lowell Correctional Institution, 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 19, at Marion Baptist Association, 1520 NE 14th St., Ocala. For more info, call 833-341-4676 or email [email protected]