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Arizona DOC Settles Sexual Abuse Suit

On March 11, 1999 the Arizona Dept. of Corrections (ADOC) agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) which alleged that state prison officials failed to protect female prisoners from systemic sexual abuse, misconduct and harassment by guards.

Federal authorities began investigating the Arizona Center for Women in Phoenix and state womens' prisons in Alhambra, Perryville and Tucson in February 1995 following media reports of sexual abuse. After two years of unsuccessful negotiations, in which the ADOC refused to hand over documents or to allow DOJ access to state facilities, the Justice Dept. filed suit in March 1997 under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons ACT (CRIPA) [PLN, Oct. 1997].

Federal officials claimed that since 1992 there have been 34 reported cases of forced sexual contact between prisoners and corrections staff, including five rapes. There have also been 65 cases of consensual sexual contact with prison staff, according to the DOJ, resulting in 60 employees being fired, disciplined or who resigned because of incidents involving sexual misconduct. The Justice Dept. further alleged that prison guards routinely invaded the privacy of female prisoners by watching them shower or use the toilet.

Arizona officials maintained that there was no practice or pattern of sexual misconduct at the state's womens' prisons, and disputed DOJ statistics on sexual abuse of female prisoners.

"We objected to the inclusion of minor incidents of wrongdoing as instances of misconduct," said Arizona assistant attorney general Jeanne Garcia-Riley. She admitted, however, that the ADOC does not keep track of the number of its employees who are disciplined for sexual abuse or misconduct.

The settlement between the DOJ and the ADOC was reached soon after the release of an Amnesty International report which documented numerous cases of misconduct involving female prisoners nationwide. The AI report concluded that "sexual abuse is virtually a fact of life for incarcerated women in the United States."

As part of the settlement, the ADOC agreed to implement and enforce regulations to protect female prisoners from sexual abuse and harassment and to protect their privacy (see sidebar). However, the ADOC made no admission of guilt or responsibility for violating prisoners' rights.

"Nobody should be exposed to the risk of sexual assault anywhere, especially by individuals sworn to protect them," said acting U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights Bill Lann Lee. "We hope this agreement will help ensure that every inmate's rights will be protected."

Donna Hamm, a prisoner advocate with Middle Ground, a grass roots organization in Phoenix, noted that the state would not have settled if it had not found problems or deficiencies in its women's' prisons.

"Anytime the Dept. of Corrections has a male employee who believes that sexual activity with female inmates is a job perk, then we have a problem," Hamm said.

The Arizona Daily Star

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