Florida women’s prison staff accused of raping inmates, other ‘disturbing’ abuses, DOJ investigation finds

DOJ: FDOC and Lowell failed to take action

Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala. (Image: Florida DOC) (WKMG 2020)

OCALA, Fla. – A women’s prison in Ocala has shown a long-standing pattern of abusing inmates, including rape and other sexual abuse by staff, but the Department of Corrections has failed to protect Lowell inmates for more than a decade, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found.

The Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala is Florida’s oldest and largest women’s prison with more than 1,450 inmates overseen by Warden Stephen Rossiter, according to the DOC. It’s also the largest women’s prison in the country.

On Tuesday, the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ released a 36-page report detailing crimes committed against inmates and a pattern of discouraging prisoners from reporting abuse. According to the report, the Florida Department of Corrections has known about this pattern of staff sexual abuse at the prison since at least 2006.

A Miami Herald investigation in 2015 detailed complaints filed by prisoners between 2011 and 2015 saying women were repeatedly subjected to abuses. Many victims told the Herald they would often comply because they felt they had no other choice.

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The DOJ began investigating the facility in April 2018 to determine if the constitutional rights of prisoners were being violated. Throughout the two-year investigation, investigators reviewed 108,505 pages of documents, made four on-site visits and interviewed prison and FDOC staff as well as prisoners.

The DOJ cited the 2015 Miami Herald investigation saying the Department of Corrections could have taken action as the reporting was a result of DOC documents and public records requests.

“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 DOJ report states.

The report details multiple examples of inmates being raped by a corrections officer and the officer ultimately remained on the job. Some accusations ended in criminal charges while others have not, according to the DOJ. The report does not name former and current DOC staff in allegations but News 6 has reported several recent arrests cited in the report, making the individuals easy to identify.

Former Lowell Lt. Keith Turner was repeatedly accused of sexually abusing multiple prisoners at Lowell over several years but remained in his position until last year, when he was arrested for sexually molesting two young girls outside the prison, according to the DOJ.

Turner was fired in November 2019 following his arrest, meanwhile, another incident was still under investigation within the DOC.

“In addition to being an accused sexual predator,” the report states. Turner “was credibly accused of unjustified use of force against a Lowell prisoner; in August 2019, he was accused of brutally beating a handcuffed Lowell prisoner and leaving her a quadriplegic.”

The Florida DOC recently settled in August with the inmate, agreeing to pay her $4.65 million.

A sergeant was arrested in July for sexual misconduct after engaging in sex in a maintenance room with an inmate, according to the DOJ. The same sergeant was accused of sexually abusing a different prisoner in 2017, causing injuries to her throat and retaliating when she refused. The DOJ never completed the 2017 investigation, federal prosecutors say.

“Lowell has a long-standing pattern of criminal charges, discipline and documented allegations of staff sexual abuse,” the report reads.

A trainee corrections officer, Nicholas Seaborn Jefferson, was sentenced to two years in prison in September 2019 after he pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct with a prisoner. The prisoner said on two separate occasions in 2018, the officer woke her up in the middle of the night, walked her to a bathroom, where she had sexual intercourse with him in exchange for a prescription drug used to treat opioid withdrawal.

Investigators wrote, “it is particularly disturbing that supervisors are among the repeat perpetrators of sexual abuse at Lowell.”

In 2018, a sergeant raped a prisoner, causing injuries that were photographed and documented. The same year, another inmate was raped between two buildings outside.

Other inmates told investigators they are repeatedly groped and subjected to sexually explicit comments and harassment. Prisoners are often threatened with solitary confinement if they report abuse, the investigation found.

The investigation found Lowell and the FDOC are violating inmates’ Constitutional rights by failing to protect them from serious harm. Under the Eighth Amendment, a prisoner has the right to be reasonably protected from sexual abuse. The investigation found sexual abuse of prisoners by Lowell corrections officers and staff “is severe and prevalent throughout the prison.”

Of 161 sexual abuse investigations reviewed by the DOJ, eight resulted in the arrest of an officer. In several cases, officers resigned and more than two dozen officers were dismissed due to agency policy.

The DOJ made a series of corrective measures for the Florida Department of Corrections and Lowell to take, including the way it handles sexual abuse investigations.

The Florida Department of Corrections released a statement to the Associated Press saying they have cooperated fully with the Justice Department’s investigation and will continue to do so. The state said it will share with federal officials the actions the prison has taken to address the serious concerns outlined in the review.

“Prison officials have a constitutional duty to protect prisoners from harm, including sexual abuse by staff,” Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband said in a statement. “Sexual abuse is never acceptable, and it is not part of any prisoner’s sentence.”