9 Investigates

Department of Corrections secretary says he disagrees with DOJ report alleging failure to protect Lowell Correctional inmates

OCALA, Fla. — For the first time, we’re hearing from the head of the Department of Corrections about a Department of Justice report detailing years of sexual abuse of inmates inside an Ocala women’s prison.

9 Investigates has covered problems at Lowell Correctional for years and has been asking for a month now to interview Department of Corrections Secretary Mark Inch about the DOJ report.

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The report states the “conditions at the Lowell Correctional Institution violate the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution due to the sexual abuse of prisoners by the facility’s staff,” accusing the State of Florida, through the Department of Corrections, of failing to keep prisoners at one of the country’s largest women’s prisons safe.

The report also notes that despite being on notice of this sexual abuse since at least 2006, the Department of Corrections failed to fix the problems and protect the inmates.

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“I disagree with the conclusions of that report,” DOC Secretary Mark Inch said during a budget presentation to the Senate Appropriations Criminal Justice Subcommittee in Tallahassee.

When Inch was asked by a state senator whether anything had changed at Lowell since the DOJ published its report, he said nothing had.

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“What the report has done, is taken a broad characterization, at a very large facility, has identified a finite number of cases, which, by the way, were identified because we provided documentation showing we took the claims seriously,” Secretary Inch went on to say about the DOJ’s findings.

Inch pointed out that in May of 2019, a DOJ-certified PREA auditor, which stands for Prison Rape Elimination Act, found that Lowell was compliant with required standards.

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However, the DOJ report released in December listed too many allegations of prisoner rape and manipulation for us to repeat. One of the most recent incidents involved a sergeant who was arrested and charged with sexual misconduct towards an inmate as recently as April of 2020. The report says the same sergeant was accused of sexual abuse of a different inmate in 2017, and even though the FDOC verified that prisoner’s injuries, the agency never completed an investigation. The officer remained employed until his arrest in July 2020.

“The report over-generalized… to conclude we have systemic sexual abuse. I disagree,” Secretary Inch said. “The report alleges that senior leadership shows deliberate indifference. We do not.”

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Following Inch’s comments, some state lawmakers are calling for an independent oversight board for Florida’s prison system.

Inch said nothing has changed at Lowell since the DOJ published its report, but some argue it should.

“He is one voice in the state of Florida that is not taking the DOJ result seriously but I’m pretty certain he’s going to be the exception,” State Rep. Anna Eskamani said.

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Eskamani visited Lowell along with other lawmakers following 9 Investigates reports about ongoing issues inside the prison.

She said she disagrees with Inch’s characterization that the DOJ report “overgeneralized” incidents of sexual assault.

“It’s really hard to just dismiss the weight of this report and I think it’s important to take it seriously and one act of abuse is too much, and at Lowell it’s much deeper than that,” Eskamani said.

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Fixing what Eskamani calls systemic issues will take fixing the DOC’s budget. She and others hope the addition of an independent review board as an accountability arm looking out for inmates and their families will help.

That would involve, she said, a “separate entity that has the ability to inspect prisons without notice confidentially interview inmates themselves.”

Eskamani said she expects another member of the House to bring this legislation forward in the next few weeks and it is expected to get bipartisan support.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.