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DOJ looking into sexual abuse in a Florida women’s prison

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On Sunday, about a hundred people gathered at a meeting hall in central Florida for an emotional encounter: Women who had previously been locked up at the state’s Lowell Correctional Institution, as well as family members of women currently incarcerated at the facility, met to share information with an ongoing federal investigation into allegations of rape, assault, and drug smuggling at Lowell. The Department of Justice (DOJ) opened the investigation in July. 

“They called me a liar, and then my mail to my family was being thrown away,’’ former prisoner Rachel Kalfin said at the meeting. She told the DOJ she spent 165 days in solitary confinement after reporting that a guard had sexually assaulted her. “I have friends who are still there who are afraid to speak up because they’re afraid their parents aren’t going to get their mail.’’

DOJ representatives told the Miami Herald they are looking into whether the Florida Department of Corrections has done enough to address complaints of sexual misconduct perpetrated against prisoners at Lowell. (The number of complaints filed is not known.) The inquiry follows a 2015 series by the Herald into abuses at the facility, including allegations that women had sex with guards to avoid being placed in isolation and were subject to substandard medical care. In one case, a woman was found dead under mysterious circumstances after having reported sexual abuse by a guard. 

Lowell is far from the first prison in the United States where women say they face routine sexualized violence at the hands of staff. In February, seven current or former Pennsylvania correctional officers were charged with sexually abusing female prisoners. In New Jersey, local prosecutorspushed forward with an ongoing criminal probe into conditions at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, where women have accused at least seven staff members of sexual abuse in the past three years alone. And in June, a second federal lawsuit was filed against a guard who allegedly raped female prisoners at the Chillicothe Correctional Center in Missouri. 

Many currently and formerly incarcerated women describe sexualized violence as commonplace  in U.S. prisons. “[W]hen I got to prison, it didn’t take long for me to experience unwanted sexual advances from male correctional officers,” wrote anti-domestic violence advocate Kim Brown in an April article for The Huffington Post. “It is a normal part of daily prison life for officers to abuse their power and harass the women they are supposed to monitor.”

For many women, ending up in prison simply means adding another layer to existing trauma. A stunning 86 percent of incarcerated women are survivors of sexualized violence, while 77 percent are survivors of intimate partner violence, according to a 2016 study published by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice. Advocates have described the seemingly close link between trauma and subsequent incarceration as the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline.”

At Sunday’s meeting in Florida, DOJ investigators tried to assuage concerns that anyone on the inside would face retaliation for speaking out. The investigation is a step forward for the inmates, said DOJ attorney Laura Cowall. “It’s a start of raising awareness of what is actually going on at Lowell Correctional facility with the women,” she told the gathering

“I have a lot of hope that this will do something,” Cowall said.




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