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Hawaiian Women Prisoners File Suit Over Sex Abuse, Torture in Oklahoma Private Prison

When the State of Hawaii opted in 1998 to send its female prisoners to a privately run Oklahoma prison, it had no idea what was in store for these women. What ensued over the next three years, according to a lawsuit filed by four Hawaiian women, was a "widespread pattern of inmate sexual assaults" by prison guards, including rape, unwanted sexual advances and torture.

The women are suing the Hawaii Department of Public Safety as well as the Dominion Group, the company that operates the Central Oklahoma Correctional Facility in McCloud. The suit alleges that more than a dozen women were raped or suffered other physical or mental abuse at the facility, where Hawaii continues to send female prisoners. Some of the details of the women's complaints are quite disturbing.

One Kauai woman tells how she was raped by a guard, became pregnant and then was forced to undergo an abortion at a prison medical facility.

Another Kauai woman was subjected to "repeated unwanted sexual contact," which included intercourse with a prison staff member throughout her entire stay at the facility.

Another women reports that she had a sexual relationship with a lieutenant at the prison, but that she was too afraid to report it. According to Charlotte Hodges, a former case manager at the prison, the woman was afraid to tell on the lieutenant because if she told on him, she'd be "set up and go to lock up."'

A fourth woman had filed a grievance in September 1998 alleging that the same lieutenant was a "sexual predator against inmates," but prison officials did nothing to stop the assaults. The prisoner who filed that grievance alleges in the lawsuit that she was then drugged and forced to remain in her cell naked or in underwear, in full view of male guards. According to the suit, this was part of an effort to make her "behave." The suit also claims that guards videotaped the entire incident.

Nancy Conley was an internal affairs investigator at the prison when she learned of this incident. "I just happened to walk into the medical department one day and she's in there in an isolation cell stark naked and heavily drugged," said Conley. "She just looked at me and said, `Please help me, somebody help me.'"

The woman's clothes were then returned and she was moved to a segregation cell where she remained for four months.

Another woman says a prison maintenance worker raped her in March 2000. The suit alleges she was denied medical and psychiatric care following the attack, and that prison officials retaliated against her after she reported the incident.

Finally, the suit also details reports that sexually explicit pictures of a Hawaiian prisoner and an Oklahoma prisoner were circulating among the prison staff in 1999. Hodges, who had seen the pictures, believes they had to have been taken by prison staff, since prisoners are not allowed to have cameras.

"Rather than secure the chain of evidence and be discreet about it, they were shown around," Hodges said. "[The staff] thought they were funny." Hodges also said that the background of the pictures made it clear that they were taken in an office in the prison education building.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections, the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, and prison owner Dominion Correctional Properties all conducted separate investigations into the allegations.

The Oklahoma DOC investigation concluded, "there probably was some sexual activity that took place." But the two other investigations predictably "turned up no proof of sexual misconduct," according to Dominion and Hawaiian officials.

Because the investigation is ongoing and the state has been sued, Ted Sakai, director of the Hawaii DPS, declined to answer any questions except to say, "We haven't been able to substantiate any of the allegations, but the investigation has not closed yet."

The FBI, with the assistance from the U.S. Marshal's Service, also investigated but no information is yet available on the outcome of that investigation.

A spokesman for the Oklahoma DOC said the department will not release any reports related to their investigation because they are not considered public record.

The four Hawaiian women who filed the suit did so under the aliases of "Jane Doe," fearing further retaliation from prison staff if they used their real names.

The six prison employees named in the lawsuit, including the warden and deputy warden, do not work at the prison anymore.

David Gierlach, the attorney representing the women, says the six former prison employees named in the suit either engaged in the sexual abuse or failed to stop it.

It is a felony in Hawaii and Oklahoma for a prison employee to engage in sexual contact with a prisoner, regardless whether or not the prisoner consents to the sex.

However, Gierlach said, "It's impossible for it to be consensual because of the circumstance of guard and inmate."

Sid Snell, a former captain and acting chief of security at the prison, began asking questions after rumors circulated that the prisoner had been raped and forced to have an abortion. Snell said that a guard who worked the night the woman was removed from the prison and taken to a medical facility was summoned to a part of the prison to admit a private car that was used to transport the prisoner. That event was so unusual that Snell filed a written report to document what the guard had told him.

Snell, now a deputy with the Oklahoma County Sheriff, also arranged for a polygraph examination of the same woman as part of an investigation into her allegations. The woman reportedly passed the examination.

Linda Phipps, a former grievance officer and compliance monitor at the prison, was asked by the prison administration to "informally" investigate allegations of sexual abuse by the lieutenant accused in the suit.

Phipps found that other guards had logged incidents where the lieutenant had entered the prisoner's cell at night and told the cellmate to leave. "The officers were seeing this and not liking it, and so they told me about it," said Phipps. "I went to include that as part of my investigation and the pages in the log book were torn out."

Hawaii sent 63 female prisoners to the Oklahoma facility in 1998, and despite all the problems, allegations and lawsuits, continues to send female prisoners there today.

These cases only continue a pattern of sexual abuse of female prisoners in Hawaii. In the early 1990s, there were similar accusations involving Hawaiian prisoners. Two dozen guards were fired or charged with crimes and the state paid nearly $1 million to settle several lawsuits by female prisoners who were sexually abused.

Source: The Honolulu Advertiser

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