TALLAHASSEE — Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch said no action has been taken to remedy findings in a U.S. Department of Justice report last month that found female inmates at Lowell Correctional Institutions have been subjected to “systemic” sexual abuse for years.
The inaction could become a problem for the state, as Department of Justice investigators put the state on notice last month, saying prison officials could face legal consequences if they did not “satisfactorily” address their concerns within 49 days.
Inch, speaking to the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday, said that while he is expected to stay silent on the matter “due to likely pending litigation,” he thought it was “really important” to explain why nothing has been done in response to the federal report.
“I absolutely, and our agency, takes every allegation of sexual abuse seriously. But I disagree with the conclusions of that report,” Inch told the Senate panel.
The report concluded that correctional officers and staff at Lowell — the second-largest women’s prison in the country — raped, sodomized, beat and at times, demeaned female inmates in exchange for basic necessities like toilet paper, as part of a “long history of tolerance for sexual abuse and harassment.”
“[The] sexual abuse of women prisoners by Lowell corrections officers and staff is severe and prevalent throughout the prison,” Department of Justice officials said in the December 2020 report. These acts, the department noted, continue at the Central Florida prison in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and are caused by prison officials’ “deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to prisoners.”
Inch disagreed with those findings, saying that federal investigators “overgeneralized” a “finite” number of sexual abuse allegations and used them as evidence to say there was systemic sexual abuse at the state-run prison.
“What that report has done is take a broad time and horizon at a very large facility, and has identified a finite number of cases — which by the way were identified because we provided the documentation showing we took an allegation seriously, investigated, took action and in some cases, the legal system took action and in some of those cases, the individuals are in jail,” Inch told the Senate panel.
To defend his points, Inch pointed to examples when senior leadership at Lowell have been reprimanded and fired for misconduct in past years, and a July 2019 audit that found the prison “exceeded” in seven standards, including “zero tolerance of sexual abuse and sexual harassment” and “screening for risk of victimization and abusiveness.” The audit was conducted by a Department of Justice-certified auditor, he said.
The 2019 audit found 62 sexual assault allegations had been logged in the past year, but it recommended no corrective actions on the prison’s zero tolerance of sexual abuse and sexual harassment policies. Auditors, however, did say prison officials should “take steps to ensure that people with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in, or benefit from, all aspects of the agency’s efforts to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse and sexual harassment.”
The Department of Justice began its investigation into Lowell in 2018, and reviewed over 100,000 pages of documents and interviewed dozens of inmates at the facility before releasing the report last month.
Inch said he was not “satisfied” with the different findings in the DOJ report and the 2019 audit of Lowell.
Sen. Keith Perry, the chairman of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, agreed with Inch, saying there is “something not right” with the timeline of the report.
Perry, a Gainesville Republican, then shared a letter during the meeting that he said was sent to him from an inmate, who he said told him “you can be safe in that environment unless you choose to put yourself in a position.”
For at least a decade, women at the prison have complained that officers tramp through their dorms and showers and grope, rape and threaten to beat and even kill them if they don’t comply with the officers’ sexual demands. If they report abuse, they say they are subjected to retaliation, thrown into solitary confinement or lose visiting privileges with their children and families.
“Our punishment was to be removed from society for our crimes — not to be raped or groped or pushed and beaten, crippled and killed,” said Debra Bennett, an activist who has been fighting for reforms at Lowell for years.