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Not Part of my Sentence: The Rape of Washington Prisoners

Gig Harbor, Wash.: Annette Guzman-White, a 32-year-old minimum-security prisoner incarcerated on a second-degree burglary charge at the Washington Correction Center for Women (WCCW), is eager to get out of prison.

It's something that could probably be said of most of Washington's 15,000 prisoners, just slightly over 1,000 of whom are women.

But Guzman-White says that her time at WCCW has put her through a kind of emotional hardship she says she wouldn't wish on anyone. She alleges that a male prison guard, Joseph Solaita, preyed on her vulnerabilities and coerced her into a sexual relationship.

Solaita, who was fired last year but not charged with a crime, has been accused by at least two other women of rape or sexual assault.

One of those women, Rosie Hamann, alleges that Solaita forcibly raped her in September 2000, information which only emerged after prison investigators approached each of the women separately to confirm an anonymous report that Solaita was having sex with prisoners. Even then, the women were not eager to share the information, and Guzman-White initially insisted she had no sexual contact with Solaita whatsoever. "I denied everything. I was scared of what would happen," she now admits.

Guzman-White finally told the truth in September, 2000, after prison investigators repeatedly reassured her that she would not be punished for telling the truth.

Since then, Susan Luna, a former prisoner at WCCW, has also alleged that she was sexually harassed and molested by Solaita.

And when those allegations came to light, another prisoner came forward in November, 2000, with a confidential written statement to the DOC that Solaita had repeatedly sexually harassed her when he first began working at WCCW. While she has not filed claims for damages, she alleges that Solaita stood in front of the kitchen and told her, "I'm in hog heaven up here," in reference to his job in a women's prison.

On one occasion, she writes in her sworn declaration, he pulled his penis from his pants and said, "You want this, you know it."

Solaita did not return calls for comment.

And WCCW prisoner Tamara Smith has alleged sexual harassment and physical contact of a sexual nature involving various other male guards while she was showering in the prison. A fifth prisoner, Danielle Revis, says she was coerced into having sex numerous times with a cook at WCCW.

All five women have filed claims for damages against the state in the last several months.

Tim Tesh, an attorney with the Seattle law firm Browne & Ressler representing the prisoners, says that a mediation between him and the DOC in July "was a joke," and that in the meantime, Guzman-White has been enduring punishments at WCCW, including placement in isolation for a minor infraction.

His office now plans to team with non-profit legal agencies to file a class-action lawsuit. Tesh hopes that the lawsuit will result in monetary payment to the prisoners and improvements in the "prison culture" at WCCW to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.

"What is perceived to be consensual sex between correctional officers and prisoners is `OK' and continues to be tolerated in the prison," says Tesh. "It's part of the code of silence."

But prison officials say nothing could be further from the truth.

"As an agency, we have a no-tolerance policy for this type of behavior by DOC personnel, volunteers or contractors," answers WCCW Superintendent Belinda Stewart. "I take the time to tell new employees, very bluntly, that I absolutely have a no-tolerance policy for this kind of behavior. We have a job to do as professionals to keep the environment safe for the people that are incarcerated within our system, and when staff overstep boundaries, it can make this kind of environment unsafe and dangerous to be in."

"As a woman myself," she adds, "I don't want people overstepping boundaries with me, and so it's important that we keep this environment safe."

Indeed, the DOC's official zero-tolerance stance on sexual relations between guards and prisoners helped to usher in legislation which went into effect two years ago, criminalizing rape and other forms of sexual contact, consensual or not, between guards and inmates.

At the urging of the DOC, Washington's Sexual Offenses chapter of the criminal code was revised to find a person guilty of a class C felony when that person, whether employee or contract personnel, was proven to have had sexual intercourse with a person under correctional supervision. (Sexual misconduct of any other kind is classified as a gross misdemeanor.)

The law was further written so that prisoners would not be penalized for disclosing information about sexual contact or abuse. Under revised state regulations, prison guards (or other employees of the state) would immediately be suspended, investigated, and terminated from employment in the case of a preponderance of evidence of sexual misconduct.

"That is the process that is intended under the law," explains State Senator Jeanine Long (R-Mill Creek), who sponsored the senate bill to criminalize sexual relations between guards and prisoners. "If [the DOC] is following it, everything should work out in the proper way."

"It's a two-way street," adds Senator Long. "The officers have authority and ability to influence where a person is held and how long they're held, and prisoners have the ability to cause a correctional officer to be investigated and possibly lose their job. We attempted in the law to balance those two areas."

In the two years since the law went into effect, investigations of sexual misconduct and terminations of employment have occurred. In these most recent cases, WCCW confirms that Solaita is no longer employed by the DOC, but Stewart indicates that there have been no other terminations of employment of personnel related to sexual misconduct allegations.

And in the interim, the state has paid out hefty sums of taxpayer dollars by way of settlements to some prisoners who alleged sexual abuse in various prisons before and after the law was passed.

In total, according to information obtained from the Office of Risk Management, nearly a half-million dollars has been paid out in settlements since 1998, including a $150,000 settlement to Heather Wells, a WCCW prisoner who alleged she was raped by guard Michael Stevens. She endured punitive segregation when she came forward with her allegations, and later conceived his child. See: Wells v. Stevens , Pierce County Superior Court, Case No. 97-2-11968-1.

Stevens, who initially denied any sexual contact with Wells, was proven to be the father through paternity testing. He later tried, unsuccessfully, to gain custody of the child. Stevens was never charged with a crime, although he did resign from his position.

And while some prison guards may be losing their jobs, or are being pushed toward resignation, they have not faced criminal charges.

The one recent exception involved a female sergeant, Monika Sukert, who had worked at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center (CBCC) for 14 years, who resigned from her position in December 2000 for having relations with a male prisoner.

Sukert entered a guilty plea to custodial sexual misconduct in February 2000 and was sentenced to one year in jail, with all but 10 days suspended.

"What we need to see are aggressive prosecutions, and the people who actually perpetrate these crimes brought to justice," emphasizes Christensen, who helped to write Amnesty International USA's Abuse of Women in Custody , a state-by-state survey released in March 2001.

"It's a terrible sign to send to other correctional officers who work within these systems that you can do these things and go unpunished, or get a slap on the wrist, or get let out through the back door."

Superintendent Stewart forwarded Solaita's file in November 2000 to the Pierce County Prosecutor's Office. Despite the investigation that resulted in his firing, the local prosecutor's office opted not to file charges in late June, when Deputy Prosecutor Mary Robnett cited a lack of "corroborating evidence" to ensure conviction.

Senator Long criticized decision not to prosecute, telling the Seattle Times on June 21 that "[t]he guards, in these cases, have tremendous power and authority over the inmates."

Tesh expressed outrage at the reasoning of the prosecutor's office, and promptly filed a civil rights complaint with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office. No significant action has been taken on those complaints thus far.

To Guzman-White, the memories of the encounters in August and September last year still haunt her. She explains, with halting words, how she was coerced into a sexual relationship with the guard on her second day in the minimum-custody unit where he worked.

After approaching Guzman-White earlier in the day, the guard asked to talk to her after midnight, when most prisoners are asleep, to "ask her a few questions."

Then, after midnight, the guard began a several-hour-long game of seduction and insistent sexual behavior, asking her if she had ever "been" with women while in prison, and asking her what her "nationality" was.

"I've never been with a Hispanic woman before," Guzman-White remembers Solaita saying.

Guzman-White recounts that she felt frightened and confused, and that she tried to fend off his advances and requests for oral sex several times in those early morning hours. Eventually, the guard took her to a staff break room where, she says, she finally gave into his insistence that they have sex.

"I was feeling vulnerable ... I felt like he had something over me," she says. "I knew he could make my time harder [in prison]."

When the guard returned after a vacation he resumed his sexual contact with Guzman-White. It was a situation, she says, which left her racked with guilt, confusion and fear, especially as she says that he warned her not to say anything about the situation lest she jeopardize his job.

Over the past few years other situations involving the sexual abuse and rape of female prisoners by male guards have involved more overt threats, including a case in 1998 where, according to internal DOC documents, a prison guard, Robert Perry, had sex with a mentally ill prisoner at WCCW and then told her that if she ever said anything about the sexual contact that she would be "taken care of." Perry, who was subsequently dismissed, further informed the prisoner that he would kill anybody if they said anything about the incidents.

In Seattle, attorney Rebecca Roe also won a $50,000 settlement for Valerie Stone in April 1999 regarding allegations of a November 1994 rape that occurred during a physical exam given by the now-deceased gynecologist, Dr. Dale Huber. At the time, Dr. Huber resigned, but was never charged with a crime. See: Stone v. Huber , Pierce County Superior Court, Case No. 97-2-12100-6.

Several incidents involving sexual relationships and overt or veiled threats were also exposed at McNeil Island Corrections Center, says David Gerhke, of the Seattle law firm Gerhke and Tizzano.

Gerhke represented a woman, Brenda Pierce, who won a $50,000 settlement in 1998 after she alleged she had been raped by guard Jeffrey Donaldson. Gerhke says that it was made clear to his client from day one that the guard had the power to have her sent back to WCCW to serve out a much longer sentence than the special six-month program offered to eligible prisoners by McNeil's Work Ethic Camp (WEC). See: Pierce v. Donaldson , Pierce County Superior Court, Case No. 97-2-09855-1.

"Most correctional officers are good and dedicated people, although they're underpaid and get no respect," stresses Gerhke. "But part of what's going on [with these sexual assaults] is the power and control issue. When you want to dominate and rape women, by God, what better [job] than being a prison guard?"

The `upper echelons' of the DOC compound the problem of recognizing and addressing the prevalence of sex behind prison walls, Gerhke says, because an "us versus them" mentality is pervasive.

"They've got this real attitude that they're above the law. They've got a tough job, they know how to do it, and us outsiders shouldn't try to make suggestions or tell them how to do it. They're resistant to change."

Donaldson maintained his innocence and was never charged with a crime, despite another settlement for $22,500 involving another female prisoner, Trisha Mechtley, who made similar allegations against him. See: Mechtley v. State of Washington , Thurston County Superior Court, Case No. 97-2-00752-3.

But in a sworn declaration filed in Thurston County Superior Court in 1997, Donaldson provided a rare and interesting glimpse into the kind of atmosphere that made sexual misconduct possible, if not normalized.

"There was a great deal of prisoner sex," wrote Donaldson in his declaration. "Sexual activity occurred regularly behind the gym, behind the kitchen and in the bathrooms. I recall a case where one prisoner was "sold" to another for stamps. ... Drug smuggling and drug-for-sex exchanges were major problems."

Donaldson mentions personally investigating sexual contact between a cook and a female prisoner, and names two guards, a Sergeant Long and Ralph Wilkins, whom he had understood to be engaging in sex with prisoners. He also refers to a widespread rumor that an unnamed physician's assistant who serviced the WEC was "doing more than gynecological examinations, that he wasn't wearing gloves, that he was feeling prisoners up, that women were being called in for exams without explanation."

"The state has that declaration," Gerhke points out. "As far as I know, there's been no official investigation of that."

Recent DOC response to a public disclosure request filed by Paul Wright of Prison Legal News indicates that the DOC substantiated charges against at least 15 employees involved in sexual harassment or assaults occurring between January 1995 and January 2001 at McNeil Island Corrections Center.

Donaldson's declaration and its description of the sexual environment at McNeil's WEC over the past several years may have contributed to a recent DOC decision to transfer the remaining womenwho were said to number no more than a dozenfrom the WEC to WCCW. It is unclear if the women, who were transferred on April 6, will still be eligible for the shorter sentences granted to prisoners who participate in the kind of job and life skills training touted by the WEC program, as the DOC did not offer comment on the subject. Roughly 40 men remain enrolled in the program.

Gerhke considers the transfer of the women to the prison from WEC to be "utterly outrageous."

"They can't control their own staffing and personnel problems, so they have to punish the women that otherwise would be qualified and deserving of something like this," Gerhke says emphatically.

Much of the existing debate about how to best protect female prisoners from sexual abuse centers around the issue of the prevalence and the effect of male guards in female prisons, as well as the issue of supervision of guards in prison settings in general.

Statewide, the DOC employs 2,755 guards, 78 percent of whom are male. At WCCW, says Stewart, 57 percent of guards are men, and 43 percent are female. (The national average of male guards working in female prisons is 41 percent, according to a 1997 prison survey.)

Human rights organizations and many prisoner advocates are calling for women's prisons to be predominantly or entirely staffed by women and, where that is not possible, for male guards to not be allowed unsupervised access to women's living quarters.

The position taken by Amnesty International is supported by international standards, including the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which states that "women prisoners shall be attended and supervised only by women officers."

All EU countries abide by this rule, says Christensen, and male guards were rare in U.S. women's prisons until the 1970s, when anti-discrimination laws were applied to prison employment.

But the call for exclusively female-staffed prisons or for increased supervision doesn't go over well with state officials and prison administrators. "How many layers of supervision do you impose? It isn't workable," says Sen. Long. "We have women guarding men in other [prisons], so are we going to say that we can only have men guarding men? I think we'd get into some discrimination issues if we did that."

Guzman-White herself argues that more careful supervision of all prison guards would make the lives of female prisoners better and safer than an all-female-staffed prison, particularly as she cites instances of women guards who "stalk" prisoners and sexually or physically harass female prisoners.

"I think we have a nice female compliment at this institution, and it's about people acting professional in the work- place," answers WCCW Superintendent Stewart. "There's no scientific study to say that if we had more females here that [sexual assaults] wouldn't happen."

Underlying the entire issue is the overcrowding of prisons statewide. WCCW itself is operating at 110% capacity. Drug laws, mandatory minimums, and three-strikes sentencing have contributed to overpopulation throughout the state. (Drug-related crimes now constitute the highest category of offenses among state prisoners, at 21.5% of sentencing charges.)

The bottom line, says Tesh, is the fact that no prisoner, regardless of their crime or gender, deserves to be subjected to violations of basic and inalienable human rights. Two years after the passage of legislation criminalizing sexual relations between guards and prisoners, Tesh says that point still needs to be made.

"Rape is cruelty. Sexual assault is cruelty," he stresses. "A `zero-tolerance' policy [relating to sexual abuse] doesn't mean anything if you have no enforcement of that policy."

Silja J.A. Talvi is a Seattle-based journalist who writes frequently on criminal justice and prison-related issues. A shorter version of this article first appeared in In These Times.

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Related legal cases

Stone v. Huber

Wells v. Stevens

Pierce v. Donaldson

Mechtley v. State of Washington