By Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board | email@example.com |
A two-year Department of Justice investigation into the Lowell Correctional Institution near Ocala has confirmed what anyone who cared already knew.
America’s largest women’s prison has been a hellhole of sexual abuse and corruption for at least 15 years. But as disgusting as the 34-page report is, the most disturbing thing isn’t the rapes or beatings or cover-ups.
It’s how few people in power cared. And that indifference has left inmates in danger to this day.
“Our investigation found that staff sexually abused women incarcerated at Lowell and that these women remain at substantial risk,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a press release.
Remain at substantial risk.
That line should ring like an air raid siren throughout the legislative halls in Tallahassee.
Four female legislators have called for the removal of prison administrators and introduced a bill that would improve treatment of prisoners. That’s a start, but the rot in Florida’s prison system calls for a major reckoning.
It should start at the top. Ron DeSantis has paid scant attention to Lowell’s problems. Of course, neither did Rick Scott, Charlie Crist or Jeb Bush when they served as governor.
Fingers could also be pointed at all the legislators and administrators who should have detected the scandalous stench emanating from the 2,200-prisoner facility.
The Florida Department of Corrections has been aware of the abuse at least since 2006, the DOJ report said. But the department “failed to take timely action to remedy the systemic problems.”
State officials can’t plead ignorance. A Miami Herald investigation in 2015 was based in part on FDOC documents and public records requests.
The Herald also interviewed more than 30 inmates. People like Casey Hodge, who was sentenced to three years in prison on a drug trafficking charge in 2012. She was legally blind and had a glass eye.
When Hodge showed up at Lowell, guards made her remove the prosthetic eye and pretended to vomit. Hodge said a guard threatened to send her to solitary confinement if she didn’t regularly have sex with him.
“I did what he said because I didn’t know what would happen,” she told the Herald. “I didn’t know what he was capable of.”
Other inmates said guards slammed inmates against walls, spat in their faces, ogled them as they used the bathroom and poured coffee or bleach on them.
The Herald’s stories prompted the FDOC to replace Lowell’s warden and hire more than 100 new guards. That didn’t stop the abuse.
The DOJ report said prison authorities did not properly investigate a long list of abuse complaints. The lax atmosphere explains how guards beat inmate Cheryl Weimar in 2019 after she told them a chronic hip problem kept her from scrubbing a toilet as they’d ordered.
Weimar ended up with a broken neck and is a paraplegic. She filed a federal lawsuit that was settled last August, with the state paying Weimar $4.65 million.
You’d think lawmakers would notice such a case. You’d think it might put the fear of God or DeSantis into Lowell officials. But the DOJ report said abuses continued into 2020.
And those were just the complaints prisoners actually filed. There’s no telling how many were coerced into silence over the years. Inmates were even told not to speak openly to the DOJ.
“During the Department’s onsite visits to Lowell, we received information that supervisory staff had threatened prisoners against cooperating with our investigation, and in one case retaliated against a prisoner for providing us with information,” the report said.
The DOJ is threatening to bring a civil rights lawsuit if the prison doesn’t make changes by Feb. 8. The “minimal remedial measures” include educating prisoners on complaint procedures, new training for staff and improved video monitoring.
Those are baby steps. The Lowell travesty calls for drastic measures and a huge dose of accountability.
Of 161 sexual abuse investigations the DOJ reviewed, only eight resulted in the arrest of an officer. The FDOC put out a statement saying it cooperated with the DOJ and will crack down on any employee who violates the law.
“FDC has zero tolerance for staff who act,” Secretary Mark Inch said.
Given the prison system’s history, such assurances mean nothing. Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) has called for Lowell warden Stephen Rossiter to resign.
Prisoner-rights advocates want a special prosecutor appointed or the state to create an independent agency to oversee Florida’s prisons. From staffing to budgets to policies, the whole system needs a serious overhaul.
Whatever actions are taken, potential crimes are not the only things that need to be investigated. Somebody needs to find out how so much abuse could go on for so long — and why state leaders barely even looked Lowell’s way.
If they had, they’d have seen a sign outside the prison gate. It says, “We Never Walk Alone.”
Tell that to Cheryl Weimar.
Editorials are the opinion of the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board and are written by one of its members or a designee. The editorial board consists of Opinion Editor Mike Lafferty, Jennifer A. Marcial Ocasio, Jay Reddick, David Whitley and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.