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Virginia DOC Says 'No Pattern' of Sexual Abuse

In 1999 the Virginia Department of Corrections conducted an internal review of 44 complaints of sexual assault, harassment and fraternization between prisoners and staff of the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, all since the prison opened in April 1998. Even though 13 employees have been fired or resigned due to sex abuse allegations, the DOC concluded that there was no pattern of sexual abuse.

Of the 44 incidents reviewed, 29 were investigated by the DOC's Inspector General's Office, while 15 allegations of fraternization were considered minor enough to be referred to FCCW warden Patti Leigh Huffman's office.

Of the 29 cases investigated, 16 involved sexual assault or harassment (the other 13 were fraternization allegations). Of those 16, four were determined to be founded, six were unfounded, one was inconclusive and five were pending further investigation at the time of the report.

A total of 13 prison staff were either terminated or resigned, five cases were referred to the Fluvanna County commonwealth's attorney for possible prosecution and one former employee was indicted, said the report.

Yet the report - written by the DOC Inspector General's Office - concludes that "There is no pattern of sexual assault/harassment at FCCW .... Our assessment is that management took appropriate disciplinary action following the completion of the investigations."

Just before he stepped down as chairman of the Virginia Board of Corrections in October 1999, Andrew J. Winston sharply criticized the administration for ordering only an internal investigation, likening the probe as "allowing a fox in a chicken house."

But the report was defended by Gary K. Aronhalt, the state's secretary for public safety, who said, "I think the report is thorough, professional and I really didn't expect anything else."

Notably, the report was also defended by Peg Ruggiero, of Friends of Incarcerated Women, who said, "I think that this sounds like there was a thorough job done and that it's fair and that the best way to continue to deal with this issue is the way that [the warden, Huffman] has and that is to bring it out in the open."

But FCCW prisoner Bobinette Fearce told the Associated Press in October that the number of reported (and investigated) sexual abuse cases is "the tip of the iceberg... in this little cesspool [of] seductions."

As Amnesty International has pointed out, it is difficult to gauge how pervasive the problem is because most prisoners are afraid to file complaints because of fear of retaliation. "If we speak out, other officers agitate you, write you tickets," FCCW prisoner Yolanda Gross told The AP.

The DOC Inspector General's report seems to bear this out. "As a result of investigations..." said the report, "15 inmates received institutional charges for making false statements about staff."

Although the review concluded there was no pattern of sexual abuse it contained a series of recommendations that included: adding more video cameras in the general population housing units; ensuring the correct mixture of male and female staff members for various posts; rotating the staff between housing units to discourage familiarity that could lead to fraternization; and rotating staff assigned to supervise prisoner work details for the same reason.

Human rights groups have said that the only way to eliminate the problem is to have all-female staff in women's prisons. FCCW warden Huffman said that is impossible because of equal employment laws, but added that she welcomed a law that went into effect July 1, 1999 making it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison for guards to have sex with prisoners.

On October 27, 1999, a Fluvanna county grand jury indicted DOC guard Richard K. Robinson for exposing himself. to women prisoners at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. The indictment states that Robinson "unlawfully and intentionally made an obscene display or exposure of his private parts in a public place or in a place where others are present."

Sources: The Associated Press, Richmond Times-Dispatch

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