Inmates in Florida state prisons should be able to serve their sentences without the fear of being raped or abused. But too often that is the reality for inmates at Lowell Correctional Institution, a women's prison in Ocala. Current and former inmates describe a prison rife with sexual assault, prostitution, physical abuse and neglect at the hands of guards and other staff members. This systemic dysfunction cannot be tolerated, and it underscores the well-documented need for sweeping reform in the Department of Corrections.
With nearly 2,700 inmates, Lowell is the largest women's prison in the United States. According to an investigative series published last week by the Miami Herald, the institution also is home to a culture that is notoriously corrupt, where guards favor inmates who have sexual relationships with them and harass and seek to harm others who don't cooperate. The Herald uncovered a litany of abuses ranging from male prison staffers who routinely walk through women's showers to sexual abuse by both male and female staffers. Inmates who comply with demands for sex are rewarded with drugs and other contraband. Those who don't submit risk officers' wrath. Inmates' punishments have ranged from guards withholding basic needs such as soap and sanitary pads to losing their belongings or visitation rights. Inmates who filed complaints about guards who coerced them to have sex or who committed other offenses were often sent to confinement in a 10- by 12-foot cell until they recanted.
Despite the threat of punishment for speaking out, 137 Lowell inmates logged allegations of staff sexual misconduct and 14 cases of sexual harassment from 2013 through most of 2015. The department settled just one case and says others are under investigation. Most officers at the center of complaints went unpunished. Some were later transferred to other prisons, a red flag that signals the Corrections Department knew something was amiss. With a department that rarely punishes bad guards and moves the worst around like chess pieces, no wonder so few inmates speak out about potential abuse.
Corrections Secretary Julie Jones said last week that she would thoroughly review the allegations of misconduct at Lowell. She also appointed a new assistant chief of investigations on Tuesday and stationed him at Lowell. Those are solid moves, but they are not enough. Jones should widely enforce the department's zero-tolerance policy for criminal activity by staff, take seriously all claims of officer misconduct and dismiss staff members who are found guilty. Jones also must make sure wardens embrace and promote a culture of transparency and accountability at each of the facilities under her supervision. And she should install safeguards, such as video cameras throughout facilities, that will help keep staff members honest.
The Florida Legislature shares the blame for the state of affairs at Lowell and other prisons around the state. For years, lawmakers have starved the Department of Corrections, providing low wages that make the workforce ripe for turnover and little money for maintenance of the prisons. The Legislature should find money to attract, train and retain a more professional class of prison workers.
It is easy to look askance at prisoners who claim they have been victims of crime while incarcerated. But regardless of the reason they are locked up, inmates don't deserve to be preyed upon by guards and other prison staff. There is nothing redemptive, rehabilitative or restorative about being the victim of a crime while doing time.