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Our Sisters' Keepers

No one can imagine. What it's like. Not unless you've gone through it. Christina Foos has. While incarcerated in a for-profit prison in Arizona, Christina says she was accosted by a guard, Ernesto Rivas, as she stepped out of the shower in March of 1997. Christina told Prison Legal News that she was startled by the sight of him, standing there with his exposed erection in hand.

Before she could think of what to do, she says, Rivas ordered her to bend over the bed in her cell and proceeded to rape her. She says he returned less than two hours later to repeat the act.

Foos was among 78 women exiled in October of 1996 by the Oregon Department of Corrections. Because of overcrowding, the women were shipped to the Corrections Corporation of America's (CCA) Central Arizona Detention Center in Florence.

Predominantly a men's facility, CCA Florence lacked a separate disciplinary segregation unit for women. A medical quarantine room adjacent to the hospital area served as the improvised solution. According to a suit filed in Tuscon by five women against CCA and at least fifteen former or current CCA Florence employees, the all-male guard staff that watched over the improvised seg unit perpetrated sexual abuses with impunity for months.

At least five of the women were returned to Oregon in August of 1997 in an apparent attempt by the Oregon DOC to hush the matter. That's when Barrilee Bannister first contacted PLN .

Barrilee, one of the prisoners transferred back to Oregon, explains that the abuse started when a guard captain Newton [full names could not be confirmed because CCA refused to speak to PLN for this article] gave six or so women a marijuana joint. Hours later he returned with several other guards and notified the women their cells would be searched. Barrilee says the captain informed them that one way they could avoid charges for possession of contraband was to perform a strip tease for him and the other guards. She says that several of the women obliged, fearing additional time added to their sentences.

The dancing, Barrilee says, lead to more aggressive behavior, from groping to oral sex and intercourse.

A number of CCA Florence guards were eventually placed on administrative leave as a result of an internal CCA investigation of the abuse allegations. Foos told PLN that shortly before she departed for Oregon a CCA guard told her the number was 27. Bannister estimates that up to 50 CCA Florence guards were involved in all -- from perpetrating the abuse to covering it up.

In U.S. prisons, such degradation is not uncommon. A July 20, 1995 incident in one of Washington D.C.'s jails offers another glimpse of this seamier side of "corrections".

As D.C.'s soul station WHUR-FM was piped over the jail's public address system, several female prisoners began to dance and strip on tables in the common are of the block called "Southeast One." A crowd of prisoners and guards gathered to watch. Among them was Sunday Daskalea, a naturalized Greek immigrant and exotic dancer from New York City who was in the jail facing cocaine charges.

Daskalea later described to the Washington Post how, swept away by the "festival" atmosphere, another prisoner-exclaimed, "Sunday's a dancer too!" But Daskalea says she wanted nothing to do with the exhibition and retreated to her cell.

According to Daskalea, the captain in charge of the block, Yvonne C. Walker, instructed a crew of prisoners to force Daskalea back to the exhibition. "You're going to make [Walker] mad," one of the prisoners warned. Daskalea says she relented at that point.

"I didn't want any trouble," she recalled. She did the strip tease, in which another prisoner also undressed and poured baby oil on a nude Daskalea.

Although jail staff were present, none reported the incident. D.C. jail officials eventually heard about it through a prisoner. And this incident occurred just three months after a federal jury found the D.C. Department of Corrections liable in a sexual harassment suit in which the department eventually settled for $8 million. [See: "Sexual Harassment Violates Eighth Amendment", PLN Vol. 6, No. 12]

Sexual abuse of prisoners by guards is not particularly new. What is striking today is the extent of the abuse -- in both men's and women's prisons -- and the near-total lack of interest among prison administrators in stopping it. No state or federal government entity collects reports of prison rape, so exact number are difficult to gauge. But the weight of individual and class action suits, anecdotal evidence, and a 1996 report by Human Rights Watch, All Too Familiar: Sexual Abuse of Women in U.S. State Prisons [PLN Dec. '97] suggests that sexual abuse is endemic to prisons across the nation.

Susan Fiester, an expert witness on sexual abuse who has testified for prisoner plaintiffs in five states, estimates that 70-80 percent of the general female prison population has experienced sexual abuse during and/or previous to incarceration.

The effects of sexual abuse on victims can be debilitating, resulting in depression, frequent headaches, insomnia, trouble concentrating, low confidence and self-esteem, and isolation from others. These symptoms can be especially acute when the rapist is a guard and the victim is forced to live each day with the fear that the abuser will violate them again.

Few such cases are reported. And if they ever come to trial, they are often framed as "he said/she said" in which the issue central to the case is the credibility of the aggrieved prisoner.

According to court testimony, Tanya Giron was raped by a guard named Danny Torrez while she was incarcerated in the disciplinary seg unit of another CCA prison, the Western New Mexico Correctional Facility in Grants. Giron, who had been incarcerated for shoplifting, said the seg unit was isolated and poorly monitored. She testified that Torrez (who no longer works for CCA) took advantage of that isolation and raped her when he came to deliver a meal tray to her cell.

In a civil trial in the summer of 1997, Giron demanded more than a million dollars in damages from Torrez and CCA. Torrez acknowledges only that he and Giron had sex; he claims Giron wanted it. The defense strategy was to elicit testimony from Giron that she had been raped before -- more than once -- and then twist that into a seed of doubt (about "crying wolf") to plant into jurors' minds.

The defense strategy worked. Though no one disputed that sex took place, the eight woman federal jury awarded Giron nothing. Paul Kennedy, Giron's attorney, recounted, "There was a lot of hostility from the jury because [Giron] was a prisoner."

Former Michigan prisoner Sadia Zoe Ali asks in a November 1996 Prison Life article: "Will somebody please tell me why the fuck it's so hard to believe these women?" As Sadia explains, any prisoner who steps forward to report abuse risks retaliation from the DOC and personal vengeance from the "Blue Gang" (the baddest gang in any prison: the guards). Because of that, says Sadia, reporting rape to prison officials is a path not idly chosen.

Bannister, for example, says that soon after she spoke to CCA's investigators at Florence, she was attacked by three guards, led by a female correctional officer named Collens, who proceeded to beat her. The guards accused Bannister of being responsible for their friends being fired. And, assuming that Bannister had been raped (despite her protestations that she "didn't go that far"), the guards aimed their kicks at Bannister's stomach, saying they would force her to abort if she was pregnant.

Later that same day, according to a statement Bannister made after her return to Oregon, Collens sprayed mace under her cell door.

Male guards sexually assault male prisoners as well [See: "Utah Guard Faces Sodomy Charges" PLN , Dec '98]. In these cases, homophobia can be an extra strike against the victim. According to a June, 1997, finding against the District of Colombia's Department of Corrections, for example, an official named L.C. Jones expressed disbelief when presented with a charge that one of his male officers sexually harassed a male prisoner.

Jones, who also had charges of sexual harassment against both female guards and women prisoners pending against him, cited the accused guard's age of 60 and testified in court: "I'll give you the fact that maybe he might be turned on by that fag, I don't know. I just do not. I find it hard to believe.

Jones was promoted to Deputy Warden soon after the incident took place.

Prison administrators may simply ignore (or attempt to cover up) allegations of sexual abuse. Several women who say they were abused at CCA Florence report that they sent letters to both the warden Crandel and assistant warden Alford Scott about what was happening to them in the disciplinary unit.

"They put blinders on. They didn't care," says Jackie Scott, who claims she was sexually harassed by a male nurse at CCA Florence.

When CCA was eventually forced by media attention in Oregon to investigate the claims of sexual abuse at CCA Florence, the women prisoners report that investigators were insulting and abusive. Bannister additionally states that she was offered $100 by several CCA administrators -- including Alford and a man named Martinez, the chief of security -- if she would keep quiet.

Prisoners are not the only ones to fear retaliation for reporting sexual assaults. That fear caries over to prison guards who contemplate breaking the code of silence.

Quida Graham, a guard who witnessed the July '95 strip tease in D.C.'s jail, told the Washington Post that she knew she should have reported the incident to prison officials but was afraid of other guards labeling her a snitch.

"Nobody wants to work with you once you break the code of silence," Graham explained. She added: "If an inmate is attacking you, you might be waiting for assistance for a very long time."

For more information, contact: Stop Prison Rape; 6632 Lexington Ave., Suite 48, Los Angeles, CA 90038. They also have a website - .

Daniel Burton-Rose is the editor of win, a newsletter of activism at the extremes for a sample copy write to P.O. Box 53013, Washington D.C., 20009

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