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Girls Sue Alabama Juvenile Prison for Abuse

Five girls who were incarcerated at the Chalkville juvenile lockup in Alabama have filed a massive $171 million lawsuit against the agency that runs the jail, the Department of Youth Services (DYS). The suit charges, among other things, that the girls were the victims of repeated and routine sexual abuse by jail staff. A separate suit had been filed against a Youth Services security guard, claiming the guard raped a teenage girl at the Chalkville jail.

Alana Williams, who was sixteen years old when she was booked into Chalkville in early 2001, has been in and out of trouble with the law for years. But nothing in her past prepared her for, or made her deserving of, what she encountered at Chalkville.

Only moments after arriving at the juvenile jail, a guard cursed her, calling her a "cocky little heffer." She later heard stories about girls performing sex acts on male staffers in return for favors. Williams said that eventually she, too, became intimate with a male guard. In return for sex acts the girls would receive goodies like cokes, Williams said.

But the facts detailed in the lawsuit describe a much more disturbing pattern of sexual abuse. Williams, along with the four other plaintiffs, said girls were often raped, beaten and forced to undergo abortions after being impregnated by male guards.

In addition, the male guards would stripsearch the girls as well as watch them take showers, the lawsuit claims. Williams also said she saw guards and teachers at the jail flirt with the girls, and one teacher even had his students play music during class and then have the girls dance with him and each other.

One other allegation in the suit revealed that one particular guard always walked around the facility with his zipper down, usually after being alone with one or two girls. "If he's been dumping out mop water or going up to the security building or something like that with the girls, his pants are always undone after that," Williams said.

DYS began investigating Chalkville employees after the allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse arose in May 2001. Regarding the girls' allegations, DYS spokesman Alan Peaton said, "That's exactly the kind of thing we're investigating. From our perspective in the state office, there's not going to be a situation where they are . . . not taken seriously."

At the outset of the investigation, 12 male guards, teachers and staffers were suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. Eight of those employees were eventually fired, and 11 nonteaching staff members were set for termination hearings. The three remaining suspended workers one aide and two guards are being reinstated based on recommendations of the investigators.

The plaintiffs in the suit are being represented by attorney Edward E. May, who says his clients are also seeking punitive damages to ensure that such acts don't reoccur in the future. May also asked that the case be opened to other plaintiffs, as he has evidence that the abuses at the Chalkville jail have gone on for a long time. "I suspect this kind of conduct has been going on ever since you had female students and male guards and teachers out there," May said.

John Morrison, another attorney representing the plaintiffs, said that the $171 million in damages works out to about $40,000 for each of the 4,300 girls who have been incarcerated in Chalkville since 1990.

The second, and separate, lawsuit was filed in February 2002 by 15yearold Amber Hoover and her guardian, Reba Swearegin. That suit charged that former Chalkville guard John Ziegler repeatedly raped, assaulted, and threatened to hurt Hoover over several months starting in January 2001.

The suit claims that, in addition to the sexual abuse, Ziegler watched her while she bathed, and that Hoover even attempted suicide in an effort to escape Ziegler's abuse.

Ziegler was named in the $171 million suit filed by Williams and the four other girls. He was also one of the eight employees fired as the result of the DYS investigation. Ziegler also faces misdemeanor sex abuse charges for inappropriately touching a girl at Chalkville in June 2000.

While DYS would not comment on the specifics of either suit, they also did not deny the key allegations in either complaint: That workers at Chalkville routinely had sexual relations with the girls incarcerated there.

And, according to DYS spokesman Peaton, at least three dozen girls have come forward since the suits were filed with stories of sexual abuse ranging from inappropriate comments by guards to oral sex and rape. "I've lost my daughter," Alana's mother, Wanda Williams said. "I think sex to her will always be associated with trading something out." Alabama state Rep. Mac Gipson (R), who serves on the Youth Services board, said of the girls' allegations, "It's terrible. It's hard for me to imagine."

Other actions as a result of the complaints and lawsuits included Gov. Don Siegelman ordering the state Attorney General to launch a full investigation, and judges removing at least 15 girls from the facility. This case is not just about "lawyers going after money," one of the plaintiff attorneys said. "More than anything else we just want this to stop."

Sources: Birminghan News; The Associated Press

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