Nearly three weeks after Democratic state Sen. Janet Cruz called for the immediate resignation of Lowell Correctional Institution’s warden Stephen Rossiter, no action has been taken to remove Rossiter — despite multiple allegations of sexual abuse against inmates at the women’s prison.
Cruz, who represents part of Hillsborough County, previously sent a letter to Gov. DeSantis to “request the immediate resignation of the current warden” because of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that revealed several incidents involving rape and sexual advances by corrections officers and staff against prisoners.
At the time the federal report was released, the Florida Department of Corrections had not yet responded to the Phoenix for a comment regarding the removal of Rossiter, who was said to be negligent in remedying the dire situation in the report.
As it stands now, Rossiter is still the head of the Ocala prison, the oldest women’s prison in Florida – opening in 1956 – and the largest women’s prison in the nation.
Thursday, the state corrections Secretary Mark Inch addressed the situation in an email to the Florida Phoenix, saying “FDC and Warden Rossiter are working tirelessly to provide a safe and secure facility for inmates and staff at Lowell Correctional Institution.”
“I have full confidence that he will continue to do so,” Inch said. “We appreciate the work of the DOJ Civil Rights Division and look forward to sharing the actions our Department has taken to address the concerns outlined in their review.”
Meanwhile, Inch said before the Florida Senate’s Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday that he disagrees with the findings in the report and that his agency had taken action by investigating the cases.
The federal 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.” And those conditions at the prison were documented as far back as 2005.
“I absolutely and our agency absolutely takes any allegation of sexual abuse seriously. You’d expect that of us…but I disagree with the conclusions of that report,” Inch said.
“What that report has done is taken a broad time horizon at a very large facility and has identified a finite number of cases.”
He added that “the legal system” had taken action as well, which resulted in perpetrators “going to jail.”
Inch addressed the issue to lawmakers on the panel while giving a presentation on budget proposals and staffing challenges within the Florida Department of Corrections, amid the pandemic.
He went on to defend past and present leadership at Lowell, saying the facility met and exceeded prison standards based on an audit.
“I encourage anyone to go to Lowell” and “you will be impressed,” Inch said.