Report: Prison failed to protect women inmates from staff

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OCALA, Fla. (AP) — A Florida women’s prison has likely violated inmates’ constitutional rights by failing to protect them from sexual abuse by staff, federal investigators announced Tuesday.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions at Lowell Correctional Institution in north Florida violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, according to a 36-page report. The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment.

The Justice Department provided the prison with written notice and suggested minimum remedial measures that include installing additional video surveillance and adopting new policies to protect inmates, officials said.

No criminal charges were announced against specific staff members.

The Florida Department of Corrections released a statement 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.”

The investigation found that sexual abuse by staff was frequent at Lowell and that the women remain at substantial risk, officials said. Prisoners are discouraged from reporting sexual abuse, and investigations of sexual abuse allegations are inadequate, investigators said.

Federal officials began investigating Lowell in April 2018 under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act. Lowell, which sits on about 315 acres (127 hectares) of land near Ocala, is one of the largest women’s prison in the country. As of last year, it held more than 2,200 inmates.

Ocala is located about 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of Orlando.