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Bureau of Prisons Sexual Abuse Suit Settled for $500,000

On Tuesday, March 3, 1998, at 3:00 p.m., at the United States District Court in San Francisco, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton E. Henderson was presented with a settlement of a civil rights suit against the United States Bureau of Prisons brought by three women prisoners who were victims of sexual assaults and rape while housed in the J-2 Segregated Housing Unit of the otherwise all male Federal Detention Center in Dublin, California. The attacks took place in the fall of 1995.

The federal prison complex in Dublin consists of three institutions, a medium security correctional institution for women (FCI), a low security camp for women, and a detention center housing all security levels of men awaiting trial (FDC). Within the FDC, is the J-2, a segregated housing unit (SHU) for the men at FDC. Despite the availability of sufficient segregated housing units for women within the complex, prison officials would routinely house low and medium security women together with the maximum security male prisoners in the men's SHU, J-2.

Plaintiffs, Valerie Mercadel, Raquel Douthit, and Robin Lucas were three of the women housed in J-2 during August and September of 1995. The complaint sets forth a pattern of sexual abuse, retaliation, and cover-up. While held in J-2, these women were repeatedly attacked and sexually assaulted. These attacks occurred late at night when a prison guard opened their cell doors giving access to male inmates. Mercadel and Douthit got word out to the Regional Director requesting help. They received no response. Lucas made a statement under oath to senior officials at the prison identifying the prison guard responsible and one of her attackers. She pleaded with officials to move her to one of the women's facilities. BOP officials refused to move her and her reports were leaked to her attackers. Three weeks later, her cell door was again opened. Three men entered. She was handcuffed, brutally beaten and sexually assaulted. Her attackers made clear that these horrors were retribution for her reports to authorities. Despite the fact that counsel for the three women submitted them to polygraph exam- inations, confirming the validity of their claims, the U.S. Attorney's Office refused to put the evidence before an impartial grand jury and closed the criminal case after sitting on it for 2 years. No criminal or disciplinary charges were ever brought against the prison guard or anyone else for the violent attacks, the cover-up and acts of retaliation or the obstruction of justice.

Michael Bien of Rosen Bien & Asaro and Geri Lynn Green of the Law Offices of Geri Lynn Green have represented the plaintiffs since November 1995. "We are incarcerating people at alarming rates," said Green, "The prison systems are not set up to handle the huge increases. Even in women's prisons, men staff the units. They read the prisoner's mail and listen to all phone calls. There exists no safe and secure method of reporting abuse. Meanwhile there has been a steady erosion of prisoners' access to the courts, legal representation, and the press. These attacks and the resulting retaliation occurred because we have a prison system that is accountable to no one. The prison system thrives on cover-ups and retaliation breeding malfeasance and misfeasance by prison personnel without redress."

Green explained: "Each of these women, at great personal risk, not only reported the sexual assaults but also extensively cooperated with the FBI, the Office of Inspector General and the United States Attorney's Office. Each jeopardized her life to come forward in the hopes of helping others by securing a criminal prosecution against the staff and prisoner perpetrators. Instead they faced continued persecution, humiliation, and threat. They found themselves in the middle of a cynical system that protects the perpetrators, not the victims."

"The settlement," said Bien, "achieves plaintiffs' major goals: The BOP has agreed to remedy the serious deficiencies in its policies and procedures, not only at FCI Dublin, but for the thousands of other women housed at BOP prisons throughout the country. Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population yet fundamental policies and training concerning sexual assault and harassment, privacy, cross-gender supervision, and medical and mental health care for victims of sexual assaults have only just begun to be addressed. In addition, BOP has agreed to stop housing women in the J-2 Unit, where these attacks took place, and the women will share $500,000 in damages to be paid by the United States."

The civil rights action was filed in August of 1996 and is captioned, Lucas Mercadel and Douthit v. White. et al. , No. CV- 96-2905 TEH. The lawsuit has been resolved through the federal court's Alternative Dispute Resolution process.

"In 1996, a new federal law was passed which greatly restricts the power of the federal courts to protect prisoners from serious violations of their Constitutional rights such as the rape and sexual assault of my clients," said Bien. "Because of this law, plaintiffs will not be able to enforce the settlement of this case by seeking relief from Judge Henderson. There is no reason that the operation of the federal prison system should be beyond the scrutiny of the federal courts. The law is bad policy and is unconstitutional."

"We must be able to monitor what goes on behind the prisons' concrete and steel veil of secrecy," added Green. "What happened in this case is precisely the danger posed by a prison system without accountability and independent investigations."

Valerie Mercadel and Raquel Douthit are still incarcerated in federal prisons. Robin Lucas was released from prison in July of 1996 and lives and works in the Bay Area caring for the disadvantaged in a board and care facility for the developmentally disabled. She, a high school basketball prodigy, is planning on trying out for the WNBA this year.

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Related legal case

Lucas Mercadel and Douthit v. White. Et al.