According to various complaints filed between 2011 and 2015, female inmates would be forced to “barter” sexual acts with guards in exchange for basic necessities like soap and food. According to the complaints, women at Lowell who submitted to the sexual demands of the guards were rewarded with the best food and living supplies available. Meanwhile, women who refused were harassed, neglected, denied basic necessities, and sometimes put in solitary confinement. In many cases, women were put through psychological evaluations and labeled as mentally ill as a result of refusing the guard’s sexual advances.
In one case, a woman named Latandra Ellington attempted to file a complaint against the guards at Lowell, saying that she was being sexually assaulted, and she was murdered just days later. According to family members, Latandra may have been planning to speak out about the rampant sexual abuse that the correctional officers at the prison have been inflicting on the inmates.
Marion County Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway told the Miami Herald that the sex taking place in these situations was “consensual,” however it is obvious that women in prison are dependent upon the mercy of these guards for their survival, and that the sexual acts in these situations were coerced.
“Some of these issues and complaints are well founded, and there are things that are happening that clearly are illegal and should not have happened, The harsh reality is if an inmate says ‘an officer has sex with me’ and that’s all you’ve got, you don’t have a prayer. For many Lowell inmates, it’s something they are not forced into doing. It’s consensual, which doesn’t make it legal, but they say, ‘Hey I get better food, I get cellphones,’ so essentially they make a trade,” Ridgeway admitted.
Attorney Aaron Johnson, who spoke to several of the inmates, believes that the sexual activity was absolutely coerced.
“What I saw was that some of the girls were truly victims of rape and sexual assault and battery. I believed them when they told me it was unsolicited, uninvited and a nightmare,” Johnson argued.
The allegations sparked an investigation by the Miami Herald, which revealed that complaints of rape were frequently silenced by the staff at the prison.
“They come up and handcuff you. Then they say something like, ‘I found this razor blade in your stuff’ and you say ‘that’s not mine’ and they say ‘well, it is now’; or they say ‘oh, you spit on me’ and I say ‘what are you talking about?’ and they say ‘do you know that that is assault? You’re going to do a year and a half in confinement unless you do what I want you to do,’” former inmate Ginjer Ullman told investigators.
“If you report you are raped, you sit in a 10-by-12 cell with nothing but your uniform, and they close the door. They put you under investigation, they say for your own safety, then they leave you there until you write up a witness statement that it never happened,” another inmate, Crystal Harper said.
The Herald’s investigation confirmed that when inmates made a complaint, they were forced into solitary confinement.
In the past decade, only two officers were arrested for sexual misconduct at the prison, but both of them pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and only spent a few months in jail.
“The so-called punishment for an officer who rapes an inmate is to get transferred to another facility. Florida’s prisons allow officers to rape women in prison because the inmates aren’t considered to have any rights,” Nancy G. Abudu, legal director for the ACLU of Florida pointed out.