SARASOTA -- The Florida Department of Corrections pledged on Monday to "thoroughly review" allegations of systemic corruption and sexual abuse at Lowell Correctional Institution, the nation's largest women's prison.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, meanwhile, said she has no standing to pursue any sort of an investigation because the Miami Herald series focused on one prison in a single county.
The allegations, involving coerced sex and the bartering of sex for illegal drugs and other contraband brought into the prison by corrections officers, were detailed in a Miami Herald I-team series, Beyond Punishment.
The story quotes multiple inmates who said they were forced to engage in sex acts with corrections officers -- and that if they complained they were locked away in confinement -- a more restrictive form of incarceration -- until they recanted.
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A statement attributed to Secretary Julie Jones said: "As the nation's third largest correctional system, responsible for the country's largest women's prison, I feel that it is our responsibility to be a national leader in implementing policy focused on the incarceration and rehabilitation of women. Since joining the department in January, I have strived to work collaboratively with our community partners, including those who represent our state's news organizations, to build a more accountable and progressive Department of Corrections."
She added: "Among our many reforms implemented in the last year, I believe that our personnel and policy changes at Lowell will have a long-term effect and create safe and accountable environment for our inmates and staff. While I believe that the Herald had an obligation to the inmates behind these incidents to act quickly and immediately report new and relevant information recovered during their reporting to a law enforcement entity, this is not the course of action the paper chose to take. Nevertheless, we will thoroughly review the disturbing allegations brought forward by the Miami Herald to ensure that the appropriate action is taken against any individual bearing responsibility for misconduct. To continue in our efforts to be accountable to the people of Florida, we will provide relevant updates as we progress with this review."
The FDC secretary was asked in advance to comment on conditions at Lowell, but her spokesman said she could not because of an illness in the family. The department rejected requests to make her top deputy, Ricky Dixon, available for an interview.
Bondi gave the following response Monday: "The allegations involve a single-judicial circuit and should be referred to the Department of Corrections and the State Attorney's Office in Marion County."
Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, executive editor of the Miami Herald, rejected Jones' criticism that the Herald should have taken its allegations to authorities rather than publish them. "Our role as journalists is to investigate and report on critical issues that might otherwise go unnoticed. We did that for this series, using hundreds of records obtained from the Department of Corrections, as well as scores of interviews. Had a representative from corrections agreed to our many requests for an interview before publication, they would have learned about the issues raised by our reporting," Gonzalez said.
The series came up Monday at a "justice summit" in Sarasota attended by lawmakers. Two legislators said that while they believed the series calls for action from the Legislature in reviewing department policies, they have confidence in Jones and that she has been helping to cut down on the culture of corruption in Florida prisons.
"I think it's going to mean top-to-bottom changes. I think we're going to see a substantial shift in a variety of different areas of policy, specifically highlighted in that report," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, at the gathering hosted by Florida Smart Justice Alliance. "From how we deal with corrections officers, to sentencing, to facilities. All of those areas I would call in crisis and in need of reform."
That might not necessarily mean more money to the department, Brandes said, but it would likely mean reorganization of resources to spend money more effectively. Specifically, he said sentencing needs to be evaluated so prisons can spend more money on paying officers rather than thousands of dollars on inmates that have no business being housed in the correctional system.
"We have corrections officers right now that are competing with Walmart greeters as far as the pay for the job," Brandes said. "And imagine how much more difficult it is to be a corrections officer."
Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, said that though the Legislature needs to look at policy changes, he doesn't believe direct oversight of the department is necessary.
"Those policies could mean more inspections, but then you need the money for it, it could mean accreditation, which they're doing, but you need money for that," Pilon said. "So policy and budget need to go together, and that's our role."
Pilon said that while there are still needed changes, he believes Jones is handling the difficult job effectively.
"Culture is hard to change. Organization can be changed immediately, but culture is a huge shift," Pilon said. "I will say I've seen marked improvement."
The series reported that of the states with the 10 largest corrections departments, Florida has a lower starting salary for corrections officers than all but one. Jones did not ask for any increase in pay for corrections officers in her proposed 2016-17 budget, even though officers have not had a raise in eight years. The governor did not include any pay increase in his recommendations to the Legislature.
An audit report commissioned by the Legislature and released last week, and another released by the agency in September, found that the staffing levels at the agency are dangerously low and that agency policies routinely allow inexperienced officers to do the most difficult assignments.
The Miami Herald contributed to this story.