State senator: Prison warden should immediately resign following multiple abuse incidents at Lowell

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Following allegations of sexual abuse and other misconduct at Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution, State Sen. Janet Cruz of Hillsborough County is calling for the resignation of prison warden Stephen Rossiter.

“I urge you to act decisively and request the immediate resignation of the current warden,” Cruz wrote in a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this week.

The letter followed a U.S. Department of Justice investigation outlining multiple incidents at the Ocala prison, the oldest women’s prison in Florida – opening in 1956 – and the largest women’s prison in the nation.

“After careful examination of the Department of Justice’s investigation of the Lowell Correctional Institution, it is explicitly clear that our State, the Florida Department of Corrections, and Lowell Correctional Institution are willfully negligent of the women imprisoned therein,” Cruz wrote. “The conditions described within the DOJ report are not only morally bankrupt but violate our nations’ Constitution.”

The Florida Phoenix contacted the Florida Department of Corrections to seek comments about warden Rossiter, and is awaiting a response. The DOC confirmed Tuesday that Rossiter still is in his position as warden.

The federal investigation released Dec. 22 focuses on multiple incidents of sexual abuse by prisoners from a period of 2017-2019, though the conditions have been documented as far back as 2005, according to the report by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney’s Office Middle District of Florida.

Many women prisoners at the correctional institution suffered sexual abuse including rape and other sexual misconduct without state officials taking action to remedy the situation, the report found, and the Lowell prison failed to protect prisoners against the abuse of corrections officers and other staff.

“Lowell prisoners have suffered harm from sexual abuse and are at substantial risk of serious harm because existing systems discourage prisoners from reporting sexual abuse and fail to effectively detect and deter sexual abuse,” the report says.

The report documented several recent incidents from 2017 to 2020, where “Lowell sergeants, corrections officers, and other staff have committed notorious acts of sexual abuse, including rape, against prisoners.”

For instance, a sergeant was arrested and charged in July after “he admitted to engaging in oral sex with a prisoner in the maintenance room of a prisoner dormitory as recently as April 2020.”

The report described another incident involving the same sergeant, alleging that he had been accused of sexually abusing another prisoner in 2017, which caused “lesions on the prisoner’s throat from oral sex, and then retaliating against the prisoner when she refused his sexual advances.”

DOJ officials also found that it’s common for Lowell officers “to grope prisoners, including their buttocks and breasts” and bribe them with drugs, food, cigarettes and other items in exchange for sex.

The Florida Phoenix has been covering reports of abuse against inmates in Florida DOC facilities, including Lowell and other prisons.