This week's disclosure of horrific and inhumane conduct inside the Lowell Correctional Institution should increase public pressure for wholesale reforms in the state prison system. Lowell, a women's prison that houses almost 2,700 inmates, operates on a system of fear, violence and abuse, including sexual misconduct. Allegations of corruption abound as do inmate complaints of cruel treatment, coercion and bullying by guards.
The Miami Herald's series of investigative reports this week, coming in the aftermath of the newspaper's previous exposure of deep flaws in other Florida Department of Corrections units, should further shock the state into stronger reforms.
During its year-long investigation of Lowell, the Herald reviewed hundreds of inmate complaints over the past four years, interviewed more than 30 inmates current and past, and uncovered patterns of abuse by the same unprincipled and unprofessional officers. The newspaper examined officer personnel files, inmate histories and criminal records, and analyzed written communications between inmates and their families. Plus, journalists studied records of a dozen years of misconduct allegations raised against wardens, assistant wardens, chaplains, instructors and medical staff.
The women depicted a prison rife with sexual extortion, drug and tobacco smuggling, and excessive force. Inmates who objected to officers' demands were threatened with an isolating confinement away from the general population and the loss of top jobs. Sex occurs in closets, bathrooms, the laundry and officers' stations, and women were led to secluded places in the middle of the night.
The inmates were subjected to officers spitting in their faces, calling them whores and forcing them to beg for such necessities as soap and toilet paper.
In one particularly disturbing case, one inmate vowed to report a guard's sexual misconduct only to receive a death threat. Ten days after reporting the threat to her family and prison officials, she was found dead in a confinement cell.
The resulting investigation was shockingly weak: uncollected evidence from the cell, ignored leads and no interviews of inmates and officers among the failures. A mysterious autopsy blamed her death on natural causes, and the medical examiner failed to note the suspiciously elevated level of a blood-pressure medication in her system, seven to eight times normal. This case certainly holds all the hallmarks of a cover-up.
Records and interviews imply DOC ignored, dismissed or concealed allegations of corruption throughout Lowell for years. The Herald also reported that DOC records reveal 137 allegations of staff sexual misconduct and 14 accusations of staff sexual harassment of prisoners from the start of 2013 through the first nine months of this year. This institutionalized system of inhumane treatment appears to be continuing.
This comes despite some moves by DOC Secretary Julie Jones, who assumed her post in January. In a statement quoted by the Herald, she admitted Lowell was "poorly managed" while lacking proper leadership. Jones replaced the warden and fired an assistant warden. After hiring 100 new officers and making policy changes, she maintains officers are more accountable now.
Is that truly the case? Or must more be accomplished? In light of the Miami newspaper's investigation, the agency vowed to "thoroughly review the disturbing allegations" of systemic corruption and sexual abuse at Lowell, the Bradenton Herald's Kate Irby reported Tuesday. That's a must.
The in-depth reports also caught the attention of the Legislature. Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, called for "top-to-bottom changes" in DOC policies -- long over due despite years of formal complaints and reports about relentless and ruthless misconduct.
These are clear violations of the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment that cannot be overlooked anymore.