Ag Commissioner Fried asks U.S. Department of Justice to monitor FL’s ‘broken’ prison system

By: - December 22, 2022 1:41 pm

Credit: Florida Department of Corrections

In a Twitter post and a letter to U.S.  Attorney General Merrick Garland this week, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried asked the Department of Justice “to monitor our broken system and hold our governor to account.”

The concerns came at a time when the Florida Phoenix was writing a lengthy story about prison conditions at Lowell Correction Institution in Ocala, in Central Florida.

The published story said that two years after a Dec. 22, 2020 report revealed “notorious acts of sexual abuse, including rape, against prisoners” at the state’s largest and oldest women’s prison, federal officials made a return visit last week at Lowell to see if conditions have improved.

The answer was no, according to prisoner rights advocates and attorneys who closely follow events at Lowell.

“There are still instances of sexual abuse, and sure they’re aware of it.  Are they turning their heads? Sure, they’re turning their heads,” says Laurette Philipsen, who served more than eight years at Lowell Correctional for grand theft and continues to stay in touch with current inmates there. She also is a volunteer member of Florida Cares, a prisoner rights advocacy group.

“The (U.S.) Justice Department needs to come down hard on them, without a doubt.  It’s two years since this report was published and still nothing has changed,” Philipsen told the Florida Phoenix in a phone interview at the time.

U.S. Department of Justice officials arrived at Lowell for a follow-up visit last week, but a spokesperson for the corrections department told the Phoenix that the agencies met but would not elaborate on any other specifics, the Phoenix wrote.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried speaks near the Florida Governor’s Mansion on August 9, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Fried, an attorney and elected Cabinet member, said in a Dec. 20 letter to U.S. Attorney General Garland:

“I want to commend you for sending officials back to Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida, to follow up on reports received by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division of gross misconduct and sexual abuse spanning years. Thank you for your attention and diligence in this serious matter. It is my sincere hope that your investigators will find that these issues of grave concern have been addressed to their satisfaction.”

Fried broadened the letter to say that “egregious shortcomings are not limited to Lowell Correctional Institution,” and that “stories like the ones shared from the prisoners in Lowell have been heard in correctional institutions across Florida. I am sure you can agree there is work to be done, even if your investigators find no additional wrongdoing in Lowell.”

She referenced issues in the letter such as a troubling rise in suicides, lack of basic amenities like air conditioning and soaring staff turnover.

Fried, who had hoped to be the next governor — she was unsuccessful in the primary — mentioned Gov. Ron DeSantis in the Garland letter:

“Governor DeSantis has chronically ignored the needs of our state correctional institutions and the needs of our prison population. As you know, this continual underfunding of prisons leads to outcomes like those at Lowell Correctional Institution. I strongly urge you to hold this governor to account when it comes to our prisons and our prison population.”

In her Twitter post, Fried said: “This week I wrote @TheJusticeDept concerning the investigation of misconduct at a Florida prison. I fear this isn’t an isolated case due to lack of basic care and funding exacerbated by @GovRonDeSantis. I’m asking DOJ to monitor our broken system and hold our governor to account.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.