The investigation follows a similar Justice Department probe of a women’s prison in Alabama. “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,” says a former Justice Department civil rights lawyer.
For nearly two decades, the inmates inside Alabama’s 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, the Miami Herald reports. In 2013, the prison was considered among the nation’s 10 worst prisons. 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. Understaffing, poor medical care, inadequate sanitary supplies, overcrowding and poor security fostered an environment where sexual violence and abuse thrived, said 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, formerly of DOJ’s civil rights division. Abbate, who is now national advocacy director for Just Detention International, said Lowell has been on the Justice Department’s radar for several years. The Lowell investigation comes after years of complaints by inmates and activists, who organized after 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.