In 2015, the Miami Herald wrote about conditions at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala. The report contained comments from inmates who say they’ve been pressured by guards to have sex to avoid punishment or to receive hygiene products. There were also stories about inmates dying under suspicious conditions after making complaints about ill treatment.
Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, says he’s heard similar stories from women at Lowell and other prisons across the state. “I’ve heard it from these various women about men guards who would make women do sexual favors in exchange for feminine products or health products,” he says.
The “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act” would make those items free. The bill also requires that healthcare products be placed in common housing areas.
Jones said many of the requirements in the bill are things he thought were already practiced.
“One would think that we are ensuring that although an individual may be incarcerated that he or she, but in this instance she would still be given the dignity that she deserves while behind bars, outside of whatever crime she committed.”
The proposed law also requires that male correctional officers announce their presence when entering a housing unit, and also document if they pat-down a woman.
“That’s standard if you do a pat-down you’re going to do an incident report on that and document it. And my guess it most of the, I’d say the large majority of officers would prefer to have female officers do their pat-downs on females,” said Matt Puckett, Executive Director for the Police Benevolent Association.
The legislation says the only reason a male correctional officer should conduct a pat-down or body cavity search on a woman is when there’s an immediate risk and a female guard is not available.
But Puckett believes that may be difficult.
“The problem that you’re going to have with most agencies but particularly with the department of corrections is the staffing and shortages. So it just may not be feasible with who is working the shift,” he said.
If the measure is approved, restrooms, showers, and other areas where incarcerated women may be undressed will be off limits to male officers unless there is a medical emergency or an immediate risk of harm to an inmate or staff.
Jones says it’s still early in the bill process and like most legislation he expects the proposal to be changed by the time it reaches the floor.
“There are some parts in there that may stay in there and some things that may come out and some things may be defined just a little bit more,” he said.
The Florida Department of Corrections says most if not all of the requirements are already being done, “The Department is committed to ensuring all inmates appropriate privacy in respect to their gender and that of the officers supervising them. Unless there is an emergency situation, our current procedures require female inmates to only be searched by female officers.”
The Department also added that currently basic necessities, including feminine hygiene products, are provided to female inmates at no cost.
The bill is being referenced to three committees. Its first stop is the Criminal Justice Subcommittee. A hearing date has not been announced.