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$1.18 Million in Santa Clara Co. Sexual Assault/Harassment Suit

$1.18 Million In Santa Clara Co. Sexual Assault/Harassment Suit

Female prisoners were awarded a total of $1,180,000 in damages and attorney's fees in the settlement of a suit filed against the Santa Clara County, California, Board of Supervisors and Department of Corrections over a pattern of sexual assaults, intimidation, abuse, and threats of physical violence by male guards at the Correctional Center for Women at Milpas (the jail).

More importantly, because of the courage of the five women who initiated the suit in 1995, jail conditions were changed to prevent the recurrence of the abuses and make the jail a safer place for female prisoners.

In 1995, Blanca Elly Cruz, Cynthia Phillips, Rebecca Arias, Patricia Braz, and Sonya Daniels, former prisoners at the jail, filed a suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in federal district court, alleging that they had been sexually assaulted and harassed while incarcerated.

After the suit was filed, thirtyfive additional former prisoners came forward with similar complaints and the suit was accordingly expanded, eventually becoming a class action. In 1999, another sixteen female prisoners came forward with similar complaints; however, the magistrate judge did not allow them to be included to the lawsuit. Nonetheless, the plaintiffs' attorneys were allowed to negotiate a settlement for the additional sixteen prisoners.

The suit alleged that male guards watched female prisoners while they showered, searched female prisoners in the middle of the night, groping and fondling them, rubbed their bodies against those of the female prisoners, made explicit sexual advances toward the female prisoners, recited female prisoners' personal information (such as license plate numbers, addresses and phone numbers of them and their relatives) in an attempt to coerce them into having a sexual relationship, and entered the prisoners' cells unaccompanied by other guardsin violation of Section 4021 of the California Penal Code. A female prisoner also claimed that she was repeatedly forced to engage in sexual activity with a guard.

The suit sought monetary damages, an injunction against male guards searching female prisoners or entering their cells without a female guard present, and changes to the jail's shower and toilet facilities to increase privacy.

In response to the suit, the defendants installed higher shower stall doors, covered windows in holding cells, installed new toilet partitions, instituted sexual harassment prevention programs, began installing observation cameras throughout the women's facility, agreed to ban male guards from stripsearching women prisoners, and fired two guards. One of the fired guards was later convicted of having sex with a prisoner.

Other guards were reprimanded and transferred. The defendants also settled the suit by paying the initial forty plaintiffs $880,000, including attorney fees, and paying the additional sixteen prisoners $150,000, including attorney fees. A previous payment of $150,000 brought the total to $1.18 million, including a total of $200,000 in attorney fees. Some of the prisoners received sixfigure individual settlement awards. As a part of the settlement, the defendants did not admit any liability on their part.

During the litigation, the prisoners were ably represented by Amanda K. Wilson and other attorneys of the Public Interest Law Firm of San Jose, California, and Patricia M. Lucas, and other attorneys of the Palo Alto law firm of Fenwick & West. Chief Magistrate Judge Edward Infante presided over the case.

Sexual assault and harassment of prisoners by guards and other prisoners is endemic in American jails and prisons. It affects both male and female prisoners. It is often portrayed in the media as an expected consequence of incarceration. Courageous men and women, such as the plaintiffs in this suit, can change this by bringing to light the such despicable abuses of prisoners' bodies and spirits. See: Cruz v. Vasquez, No. C9520776 (U.S.D.C. N.D.Cal. San Jose 2000).

Sources: San Francisco Chronicle; San Jose Mercury News

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Related legal case

Cruz v. Vasquez