Wednesday, December 21, 2022

After a scathing report on sexual abuse at FL’s female prison in 2020, has anything changed? (Florida Phoenix)

Florida Governor RONALD DION DeSANTIS needs to make prison reform an urgent priority.  DeSANTIS needs to visit the Lowell prison in Ocala, Florida.  DeSANTIS been busy for four years, holding a Cabinet meeting in Israel, gallivanting round the Nation in a Quixotic race for President, gathering so much feculent dirty corporate money that he's got some $60 million left over from his successful re-election campaign,  

From Florida Phoenix:

After a scathing report on sexual abuse at FL’s female prison in 2020, has anything changed?

Last week, federal officials visited Lowell Correctional in Ocala, in Central FL

BY:  - DECEMBER 21, 2022 7:00 AM

 Barbed wire. Credit: Alex Potemkin, Getty Images.

Two years after a Dec. 22, 2020 report revealed “notorious acts of sexual abuse, including rape, against prisoners” at the state’s largest and oldest women’s prison, federal officials made a return visit last week at Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution to see if conditions have improved.

The answer was no, according to prisoner rights advocates and attorneys who closely follow events at Lowell.

“There are still instances of sexual abuse, and sure they’re aware of it.  Are they turning their heads? Sure, they’re turning their heads,” says Laurette Philipsen, who served more than eight years at Lowell Correctional for grand theft and continues to stay in touch with current inmates there. She also is a volunteer member of Florida Cares, a prisoner rights advocacy group.

“The (U.S.) Justice Department needs to come down hard on them, without a doubt.  It’s two years since this report was published and still nothing has changed,” Philipsen told the Florida Phoenix in a phone interview.

Broward County-based attorney David Frankel agreed, telling the Phoenix:

“I don’t think there’s been any reform,” said Frankel, who represents female inmates in two separate lawsuits related to alleged sexual abuse by corrections officers at Lowell, in Central Florida’s Ocala. “I think it’s actually gotten worse because it’s gotten harder for the Department of Corrections to hire people, especially with the pandemic. The people that they hire are not well trained. And there’s a complete lack of supervision at the mid-management level that the department…doesn’t want to address.”

The lawsuits – filed in July and September of this year – also name former Lowell Correctional Warden Stephen Rossiter and current Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon as defendants.

 Lowell Correctional Institution. Credit: Florida Department of Corrections.

The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Florida spent 2 1/2 years producing their Dec. 22, 2020 report, which alleged that “sexual abuse of women prisoners by Lowell corrections officers and staff is severe and prevalent throughout the prison.”      

It went on to allege that staff and Florida Department of Corrections officials had discouraged prisoners from reporting sexual abuse and had failed to detect and deter sexual abuse. And it detailed incidents that were “varied and disturbing.”

“Some staff abused prisoners through unwanted and coerced sexual contact, including sexual penetration, and groping,” the report states. “Prisoners were forced or coerced to perform fellatio on or touch the intimate body parts of staff. In other instances, staff demanded that prisoners undress in front of them, sometimes in exchange for basic necessities, such as toilet paper. Many prisoners reported that staff watch them while they shower or use the toilet, with no penological justification.”

But state correction officials objected to the report’s findings, and their official response sent out by an attorney from the law firm of GrayRobinson in Jan. 29, 2021 claimed that most of the alleged incidents of sexual abuse detailed in the report took place sometime between two to five years prior, “well before (the corrections department’s) most recent measures were taken.”

The response, written by attorney Andy Bardos, also said that none of the 12 correction department employees identified in the report as perpetrators or suspected perpetrators of sexual misconduct were working any longer with female inmates, and that five of the 12 had been arrested and criminally charged.

At around the same time, then-Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch appeared before the Senate Appropriations Criminal Justice subcommittee in Tallahassee and said he disagreed with the substance of the Dec. 20, 2020 report. “The report over-generalized…to conclude we have systemic sexual abuse. I disagree. The report alleges that senior leadership shows deliberate indifference. We do not,” Inch said, according to WFTV.

Inch added that an auditor certified by the U.S. Department of Justice found in a 144-page Prison Rape Elimination Act final report in July 2019 that Lowell had been compliant with the required standards.

Follow-up visit, new lawsuits

Flash forward to last week, when U.S. Department of Justice officials arrived at Lowell for a follow-up visit. (It wasn’t clear if officials from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Florida attended.)

A spokesperson for the corrections department told the Phoenix that the agencies met but would not elaborate on any other specifics.

“Lowell CI has been subject to numerous outside audits by correctional experts and the Department of Justice,” said Paul W. Walker, press secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections. “Outside audits have found Lowell to meet and, in some instances, exceed national standards.”

However, an indication that conditions may not be improving since the December 20, 2020 report is the two lawsuits filed within three months this past summer.  One in in state court, another in federal court – from Lowell inmates claiming sexual abuse by correction officers.

The federal case, filed in the U.S. District Court Middle District of Florida on July 7, says an inmate was subjected to “physical abuse, intimidation and restrictive confinement as part of a widespread and continuing pattern of forced sexual submission imposed by Lowell C.I. employees upon her and other numerous female inmates, all done with (the) acquiescence” of former warden Stephen Rossiter.

The second lawsuit – filed in state court in Marion County near Central Florida in early September – also lists Rossiter as a defendant who exhibited “deliberate indifference to a widespread pattern of sexual and physical abuse. “

Both cases are in discovery, says Frankel, the lawyer from Broward.

“I will be setting the depositions of Rossiter and FDOC (corrections department) officials to ask them pointedly about what measures they have taken to alleviate the problem,” he said in an email to the Phoenix.

Two weeks after the Marion County lawsuit was filed, Rossiter “was promoted” to assistant regional director of programs with the department, said Michelle Glady, a spokesperson for the corrections department.

It’s not just in Florida

The issue of sexual abuse of female inmates isn’t just related to Florida’s correctional system.

congressional report released last week revealed that Federal Bureau of Prisons employees sexually abused female prisoners in at least two-thirds (19 of 29) federal prisons that have held women over the past decade, including multiple cases at the Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County, in Central Florida, which is now an all-male facility. In April 2021, the Bureau of Prisons transferred all female prisoners out of the complex, coinciding with public allegations of sexual abuse.

In Florida, critics allege that there are numerous sexual abuses that never get reported at Lowell because inmates are put in confinement while their allegations are investigated. “And that’s where you’re stuck until they complete this investigation,” says Philipsen, the volunteer with Florida Cares, a prisoner rights advocacy group.

“And most of the time after a couple of weeks, the woman has had enough. They want out of confinement. They want to be able to see their families. They want to be able to see their children. They want to have access to the phones. So then they’ll go sign a statement that they lied. And nothing took place.”

Kim Lawrance, who maintains a Facebook page for friends and family members at Lowell Correctional, said: “When women are put into confinement that means they lose their job they may have had in prison or the programs that they’re in and that’s all they’ve got and they’ll not want to risk that and go into confinement.”

Lawrance, who is getting her Ph.D. in Criminal Justice at Nova Southeastern University, became a prisoner advocate after her daughter was sent to Lowell on armed robbery charges in 2016.  That daughter has since been transferred to the Florida Women’s Reception Center in Ocala, where Lawrence says has been a much safer environment for her daughter than Lowell.

“I really have no complaints about my daughter’s prison,” Lawrance said.

There has been accountability in some cases when it comes to sexual abuse in Florida’s female correctional facilities.

In June of 2016, Anquanette Woodall was serving time for armed burglary and robbery at Gadsden Correctional Facility when she was raped by a corrections officer while she was cleaning the staff bathroom in the kitchen. The officer threatened to hurt her or members of her family if she reported the incident. She later transferred to Lowell, and then Homestead correctional, where she still is housed.

A subsequent pregnancy test showed that she was pregnant. Authorities then took a DNA sample from her and matched it to the DNA from a napkin touched by that officer, Travis Hinson. He ultimately plead guilty in Gadsden County to charges of sexual battery and received a five-year criminal sentence in September 2018.

Woodall says she wishes that correctional officers could be compelled to wear body cameras but acknowledges that’s unlikely.

“You can pay them more,” she said last week speaking on the telephone from Homestead regarding what it would take to have less sexual abuse by officers in prison. “You can hire people who are older than the 18 and 19-year-olds – it’s really all about monitoring. You know, just how they monitor us – monitor them. They have so much power and they use it.”

While advocates are critical about the handling of sexual offense cases in prisons, some believe the problem also lies with the quality of correctional officers. And there’s been an effort in Florida to bring higher-caliber employees into the Department of Corrections.

Beginning January of 2022, starting salaries for correctional officers increased to $38,750, as part of incentives for pursuing correctional officer jobs. Since then, the figure increased to $41,600 for correctional officers, based on the 2022-23 state budget.

Dianne Hart, the Tampa Democratic House member and chair of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, has made regular trips to Florida prisons during her time in office to check in with inmates and review facilities.

She also says it’s a fact that the corrections department has hired officers who have some “challenges” in their background and in some cases have had prior arrests. (The Florida Department of Corrections says that all corrections officers undergo a background investigation. Officers cannot have a felony conviction, or any misdemeanor involving perjury or a false statement.)

“There’s no amount of money that can change people’s hearts,” Hart says. “And until we get people in those prisons who really want to work there and want the betterment for the prisoners, then we’re always going to have a problem, no matter what we’re paying them.”

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Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.



Anonymous said...

Corruption in Florida prisons has been an issue for decades especially at the mens prisons. Inmates are beat up as a matter of tradition, facilities wharehouse violent inmates in open dorm type environments, and staff allow crime to run rampant inside the prisons. Someone could realistically go to prison for drugs or a subsequent driving on a suspended license and never come out because of the violence. Stabbings and fights are a daily occurrence. There are ways to stop it all if they build proper facilities and have adequate supervision but Florida simply does not care. They chalk it all up to "It's prison and it's not supposed to be a cakewalk." This is the attitude that leads to gross human rights violations. It has now become a human rights issue. Republican governors are to blame for the problem but the people of Florida as a whole share that blame. The poor culture that calls for "an eye for an eye" "survival of the fittest" "every man for himself" and "lock em all up and throw away the key" permeates society down here. Incarceration is seen as governments main function in the State of Florida. Doing things to prevent incarceration is not on the menu.

Anonymous said...

Just keep in mind that this is the state where people not too long ago used to show up with frying pans to people's electric chair executions like it was some hockey game. Also remember one botched electric chair execution resulted in flames shooting from an inmate's head and blood on the inmates shirt formed some semblance of a cross. I believe it might have been a senator who remarked that the blood cross was "a sign from God" that they had done the right thing. Ok? These people are animals down here. That's the problem. Poor culture and mistaken religious beliefs infused with untreated mental health problems permeate society down here I'm telling you. The belief in social darwinism is the root cause of all problems down here political or otherwise.