Florida lawmakers are calling for sweeping reforms after a Department of Justice investigation alleged a culture of “systemic” sexual abuse and cover-ups at a women’s prison in Ocala. State legislators last week held a Zoom call with former inmates of Lowell Correctional Institution to talk about how to move forward.
Laurette Philipsen expected to serve her time at Lowell peacefully. But soon after starting her 8.5 year sentence, she saw the abuses hidden in plain sight.
“I saw many women being removed from the dorm to go with officers to the secret spot. Knowing sex was going to take place,” Philipsen said. “Mostly in exchange for free-world items.”
And Philipsen said it only got worse if women tried to complain. An investigation would mean the woman went into confinement while the officer continued their duty. Collecting a paycheck while more women remained vulnerable. Ultimately, she said, many women gave up.
“The woman will usually end up signing a statement that she was not truthful in her original complaint. So, that she could get out of confinement to see and talk to her family and her children,” she said. “Only for the sexual abuse to resume.”
Philipsen isn’t alone in assessing abusive conditions at Lowell. In late December, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report accusing Lowell of a history of sexual abuse and cover-ups. Lowell is the oldest women’s prison in Florida and the largest in the country.
According to the report: “Lowell prisoners have suffered harm from sexual abuse and are at substantial risk of serious harm because existing systems discourage prisoners from reporting sexual abuse and fail to effectively detect and deter sexual abuse.”
The report said the DOJ found abuse going back to 2006 at least. It also said the Florida Department of Corrections was aware.
“Despite being on notice of this sexual abuse, FDOC and Lowell failed to take timely action to remedy the systemic problems that have enabled corrections officers and other staff to continue to sexually abuse Lowell prisoners.”
The report said such abuses violate prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights, which protect against cruel and unusual punishment.
The DOJ warned Florida that it could sue if conditions aren’t satisfactorily met within 49 days. But a group of women legislators want to put laws on the books to make sure abuses don’t continue.
Time for change
State Representative Anika Omphroy is one of those lawmakers.
“We have made it our point to do the work that others have decided is not important. Every citizien that resides in the state of Florida – whether they are incarcerated or not incarcerated – deserves a certain level of respect,” she said.
Omphroy was joined by Representatives Susan Valdes, Yvonne Hinson and Dianne Hart in calling for change. They warned FDOC Inspector General Ken Sumpter that if he doesn’t clean up the Department of Corrections, they’ll find someone who will. They also called for reforms like citizen review boards; more psychological testing for guards along with increased background checks; and a database to track violations and complaints.
“If there’s anything that pops up in their background about abusing anyone they should not be working in our facilities. Simple,” Omphroy said. “They don’t have the qualifications, the basic qualifications to be there,” Omphroy said. “If you’re abusing human beings you should not be working in the care of human beings.”
She added that lawmakers should also support mental health evaluations and support services for correction officers.
Rep. Hart said prison reform bills are being drafter ahead of the coming legislative session in March. But the Florida legislature has a long history of pushing those issues off. Rep. Valdes said this report could be the tool to change the tide.
“If this report does not change attitudes in Tallahassee, when we swore on the oath of the Constitution to protect our citizens, I don’t know what else will,” Valdes said.
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