by Roger Smith
American jail and prison officials sexually molest hundreds, and possibly thousands of women prisoners each year. According to a March 2001 report by Amnesty International USA, over 1,000 such cases were reported in the last 3 years with hundreds more not reported for fear of official retaliation.
The Amnesty report attributes this phenomenon to state laws, which do not adequately punish prison officials for such abuse of prisoners. Although far too little and long overdue, a few legislators are calling for stiffer penalties for prison officials who sexually molest prisoners.
Amnesty compiled data for its report by combing state and federal laws dealing with custodial sexual abuse of prisoners, and by interviewing attorneys general, departments of correction officials, and activist groups.
Prisoners in all 50 states and the federal system are subjected to such abuse, says Amnesty. It blames laws that do not protect prisoners from prison official abusers. For example, many states have no laws against such abuse, some have laws that provide little protection for prisoners, and some have laws that could actually result in the prisoner victim being criminally prosecuted after being coerced into having sex with his or her captor.
In Arizona, California, Delaware, and Nevada, for example, prisoners may be held criminally liable for having sex with guards. In those states, then, a guard could force a prisoner to have sex with him or her, claim the sex was consensual, and subject the prisoner victim to criminal prosecution for doing nothing more than being forced to have sex with the guard.
Amnesty found that only 3 states prohibit the "inherently abusive" practice of male guards conducting "patdown" searches of female prisoners.
Additionally, some states protect prisoners from the sexual abuse of guards but not from other officials, such as medical staff and kitchen supervisors, says Amnesty.
The report concluded that penal laws should be nationally redesigned to more severely punish officials who perpetrate sexual misconduct against prisoners.
William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty, commented that "mistreatment of prisoners in this society ... is treated less seriously because there is among some people a bias that people in prison deserve what they get."
Schulz also said that the report shows a "systemic problem" not just a "few bad apples" in the prison system.
The case of Cassandra Collins is a high profile example of custodial abuse of women prisoners. In 1995, Collins was serving 6 months in the Gladsden County Jail in north Florida for writing bad checks. During her incarceration, she was repeatedly raped at gunpoint by Captain Roosevelt Baker, a jail administrator and 25year veteran of the Gladsden County Sheriff's Office. Collins eventually paid Baker a weekly sum in exchange for his not raping her.
Collins' attempts to have Baker criminally prosecuted for the rapes were unsuccessful in both the state and federal criminal justice systems. Prosecutors simply refused to act against Baker. However, Collins did settle an associated civil action with the Gladsden County Sheriff's Office for $200,000.
By contrast, a female guard's allegation of Baker's sexual misconduct resulted in Baker's being prosecuted. The guard complained that Baker, her supervisor, coerced her into having sex with him. Federal prosecutors successfully prosecuted Baker for violating the guard's civil rights. Baker received a fiveyear federal prison sentence, but the female guard was fired.
Collins vowed not to "let another woman or man be tortured and humiliated like that in the state of Florida or in the United States." She is using her settlement money to tour Florida reaching out to similar victims and campaigning for stiffer penalties for the custodial sexual abuse of prisoners.
Collins' efforts have caught the attention of two Florida legislators. Both Representative Frederica Wilson (DMiami) and Senator Mandy Dawson (DFort Lauderdale) have introduced bills calling for more severe punishment for prison officials who sexually molest prisoners. Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, supports the measure, says Wilson.
Wilson commented that although legislators "know that this takes place in U.S. correctional institutions [they] have done little if anything to stop it." she praised Collins' efforts for more protective legislation in this area.
In California, three women prisoners at the Valley State Prison for Women at Chowchilla have filed civil actions in a California federal District Court after Dr. Robert Bowman sexually abused them during medical exams at the prison. Criminal sexual charges were also filed against Bowman in state court in July 2000.
Lisa Williams, a prisoner at the facility, was harassed and sexually assaulted by Bowman from October 1999 to March 2000. During an inappropriate pelvic exam, Williams asked Bowman to stop abusing her. Bowman refused, saying that "no one told you to come to prison." Two other women reported assaults by Bowman at the prison in May 1999 and July 2000.
The sexual complaints range from penetration and Bowman's attempts to force at least one of the women to felate him, to inappropriate pelvic and breast exams and lewd remarks by Bowman.
Bowman was also employed by Adult Custody Health Services, a private company providing health care to prisoners in jails in Santa Clara County, California. Dr. Earle Sloan, medical director of the Santa Clara Department of Corrections, admitted knowing about the criminal charges against Bowman in July, 2000. Even so, in October 2000, Sloan was still allowing Bowman to examine and treat Santa Clara jail prisoners.
Lauren Leslie, of Legal Services far Prisoners with Children in San Francisco, said that Bowman is the most complained about doctor in the California penal system. He has had over 70 complaints filed against him, about one quarter of which are sexual misconduct related, the rest pertain to treatment, said Leslie. Still, Bowman is allowed to examine female prisoners in Santa Clara County.
In the federal system, two former guards at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, California were charged with engaging in a sexual act with a female prisoner in 1999.
Former guard Howard Washington, accused of coercing the female prisoner to have sex with him, was one of those guards. He pleaded guilty to the charge on February 6, 2001 in a federal District Court in San Diego, California.
Mark Hagan, the other guard, is expected in the near future to plead guilty to the same charge with the same prisoner.
The charge is only a misdemeanor, and both guards are free on $5,000 bond.
These charges resulted from a 3year Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
Joe Artes, one of the investigators said "this appears to be a systematic problem throughout the federal BOP."
"A correctional officer is supposed to protect inmates ... " said U.S. Attorney Amalia Meza. Even so, other offending guards revealed by the investigation will not be prosecuted because "if the BOP pursues the allegations, the officers could be reprimanded or fired," said the U.S. Attorney's Office.
In Texas, dentist Dean Bradley Hagen pleaded guilty in a Texas State court to public lewdness on February 26, 2001. Hagen was caught on videotape fondling a woman prisoner while treating her at the Del Valley Correctional Complex in Texas.
Hagen originally was charged with sexual assault. Prosecutors dropped that charge and reduced four counts of improper sexual activity with a person in custody felony charges to the misdemeanor public lewdness charges in exchange for Hagen's guilty plea.
Hagen could not have been convicted of the improper sexual activity with a person in custody charges, according to Assistant District Attorney Gary Cobb, because Hagen "was a contractor, not a county employee."
"I don't think this punishment was sufficient, but it was the most we could get under the law," said Cobb.
Hagen has settled three civil actions for undisclosed amounts with other prisoners who sued him for sexual misconduct, with two similar lawsuits still active.
Hagen has surrendered his dental license and agreed to participate in treatment and to perform 200 hours of community service.
He is "terribly humiliated about this" and "feels very badly about the effects of this on his wife, on his family" said Scott Young, Hagen's attorney. No statement of remorse over the impact of Hagen's abuse on his prisoner victims was reported.
Hagen still faces three criminal public lewdness charges and one harassment charge. He has been in jail since October 2000 but may soon be released if he posts bail on the pending criminal charges.
Considering the above examples, one can hardly disagree with Amnesty's position that personal bias and toothless laws subject incarcerated women to sexual abuse, which, if inflicted upon women who are not prisoners, simply would not be tolerated.
Neither Bowman nor Hagen, would have been allowed to continue treating nonprisoner patients, had the charges against them been filed by women who were not incarcerated.
Similarly, Baker's gunpoint rape of Collins surely would have resulted in criminal prosecution had Collins not been incarcerated when Baker raped her. This is amply demonstrated by his prosecution for merely coercing a subordinate female guard into having sex with him. Unlike with the guard, both state and federal prosecutors ignored Collins' pleas for justice.
Lackluster enforcement of existing weak laws further exacerbates the problem by allowing guards to sexually abuse prisoners with relative impunity. This atmosphere encourages, rather than diminishes, such abuse.
Prison officials are rarely prosecuted for such abuse of prisoners. When they are prosecuted, they generally receive plea bargains, which allow them to avoid lengthy prison sentences, sex offender registration, and mandatory minimum sentences, which normally accompany sex convictions. Only when prisoner charges of custodial sexual abuse are seriously investigated and prosecuted, as those charges are outside the prison setting, will the government have made a genuine effort to end this atrocity.
One can only agree with Amnesty's position that national statutory reform is necessary. Patience, however, does not engender reform. Those concerned are urged to contact their local legislators with their concerns on the subject.
Sources: Associated Press; WOMENSENEWS; San Jose Mercury News; San Diego UnionTribune; Austin AmericanStatesman
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