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Friday, January 28, 2022

DOJ investigation into Lowell prison uncovers years of abuse, neglect and horror

Former inmates are pushing to shut the prison down, after DOJ found Eighth Amendment violations

Editor’s Note: The story contains mentions of sexual assault. 

The guards handcuffing Kathryn Eno knew exactly how to clasp the cold metal onto the meaty parts of her wrists in a way that would make her wince.

While in a shower with nothing but a waist-high wall to hide behind, Eno could feel the heavy gaze of male prison guards.  

Sometimes it would be a radio screeching right next to her ear to wake up. Other days it was slamming lockers or shining a flashlight into her eyes. The guards would grab the women, and if they refused to go with them, they were dragged away.

These are just a few of the horrors Eno recounted from her time at Lowell Correctional Institution, a women’s prison in Ocala. Eno, now a bookkeeper and a mother, was incarcerated for nearly 17 years and spent about 17 months in Lowell on charges of second degree murder and related crimes. She is one of hundreds of women who’ve experienced these terrors.

“It's absolutely impossible to put on paper,” Eno said.

But that's what the U.S. Department of Justice attempted to do in a two-year investigation that resulted in 34 pages of accounts of abuse. 

The DOJ released a report on Dec. 22, 2020 detailing how corrections officers raped, sodomized, beat and choked female inmates at Lowell. The investigation, which began in April 2018, found the prison violated incarcerated women’s Eighth Amendment rights and failed to protect them from sexual abuse. It also revealed the Florida Department of Corrections and Lowell’s failure to take timely action to remedy the systemic problems, enabling staff to continue abusing Lowell prisoners. 

Florida Corrections Secretary Mark Inch disagreed with the findings of the DOJ report, and said federal investigators “overgeneralized” a “finite” number of sexual abuse allegations. 

A July 2019 audit found the prison exceeded seven standards, including zero tolerance of sexual abuse and sexual harrasment, Inch said. However, the audit found 62 sexual assault allegations had been logged in the past year, but it recommended no corrective actions on the prison’s zero tolerance of sexual abuse and sexual harassment policies.

Following the report, four female legislators called for the removal of prison administrators and introduced a bill on Jan. 5 that would improve treatment of prisoners. Sen. Janet Cruz, who represents Hillsborough County and Tampa, urged the resignation of Warden Stephen Rossiter in a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis. 

Rachel Kalfin, now a 30-year-old employee at a sales manufacturing company, spent 36 months at Lowell for aggravated assault and burglary. Kalfin said the DOJ investigation did not cover enough of what women there lived through, and abuse is still happening in the prison. 

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“These are still kids, women, young ladies that are minors, they're still getting abused, physically, emotionally, sexually,” she said. 

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

Lowell Correctional Institution and Rossiter did not respond to requests for comment. 

The DOJ report comes about five years after the Miami Herald investigated how Lowell prisoners were forced into sexual acts with officers. The federal investigation cited The Miami Herald’s “Beyond Punishment” series and stated the FDOC could have taken previous action given that the newspaper’s reporting came from FDOC documents and public records.

Angie Hatfield’s daughter has been in prison for almost eight-and-a-half years and at Lowell since 2019. On June 29, 2019, her daughter – whom Hatfield asked The Alligator not to name for her safety – told her she was going into protective custody. A prison guard attempted to sexually assault her, and she needed to be around cameras so there would be proof if anything happened. 

After hearing her daughter needed protection, Hatfield began advocating for the guards at Lowell to wear body cameras and wrote up a proposal for a statute for body cameras a few weeks ago. Hatfield is still searching for a sponsor for it to be drafted. 

“Our state has to respond to what happened, there is no hiding it,” Hatfield said.

Debra Bennett, a former Lowell prisoner and executive director of Change Comes Now, an organization that assists people who have been negatively impacted by the criminal legal system, has a five-year plan to shut Lowell down. Part of the plan is keeping women out of prison and putting pressure on Gov. Ron DeSantis to let prisoners out on clemency and parole. Bennett said she believes the investigation and Sen. Cruz’s call for the warden’s resignation will help speed up the process.

But to Bennett, firing Rossiter isn’t enough. After years of inmates and activists speaking out about the abuse, she said she believes DeSantis and Governors before him haven’t done enough to help the women in Lowell. 

“The state of Florida failed the women in the prison system,” Bennett said.

Contact Anna Wilder at Follow her on Twitter @anna_wilderr.

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Anna Wilder

Anna Wilder is a second-year journalism major and the criminal justice reporter. She's from Melbourne, Florida, and she enjoys being outdoors or playing the viola when she's not writing. 

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