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Rape of Women Prisoners Rampant in Ohio

The sexual assault of female pris-oners at the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW) in Marysville, Ohio, is shockingly commonplace, according to a report by Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR) released on December 10, 2003. The 15-page report, titled The Sexual Abuse of Female Inmates in Ohio, details an environment in which male prison employees routinely harass, abuse, and attack female prisoners with virtual impunity, and where women reporting sexual abuse are isolated in solitary confinement, a.k.a "the hole."

SPR's investigation into the abuses at ORW was aided by the allegations of three former ORW employees: Tim Daniell, 49, program coordinator for ORW's Intensive Prison Program, a rigorous boot camp-style program; prison guard Mike Coffee, 47; and health care administrator Traci Douglass-Coffee, 40.

Daniell began working at the prison in 1988. Realizing that a climate of abuse pervaded ORW and that the administration was doing nothing to curb it, Daniell contacted the Inspector General's Office, the Ohio Attorney General, and the Ohio Highway Patrolnone of which took any action, according to Daniell. His attempted whistle-blowing was, however, acted on by prison authorities who investigated Daniell for improperly keeping records, even sealing his office with crime-scene tape. After initially being transferred to a less desirable position, Daniell was fired in August 2002.

Coffee, a seven-year veteran of ORW, alleged widespread sexual abuse of the 1800 female prisoners. Moreover, guards and staff were rarely punished for sexual contact with prisoners, said Coffee, and were sometimes even transferred to more desirable positions. Coffee resigned in January 2003 citing health reasons.

Douglass-Coffee claimed that women at the prison were "treated like animals and were placed in the hole in disgusting" conditions for reporting abuse. She confirmed that staff and guards were rarely disciplined and that punishment often consisted of no more than paid leave. Unable to stomach the ethically repugnant conditions at ORW, Douglass-Coffee resigned in July 2000.

Daniell told SPR that women were routinely abused inside of locked broom closets. Multiple staff had keys to the closets, which could be locked from the inside and did not contain surveillance cameras. Daniell further reported that a mental health worker in his own department had sex with a prisoner in his office, and that a guard was found to have had sex with two females in the juvenile wing.

Coffee said that sex between prisoners and staff was a subject of daily discussion at the prison. Coffee alleged that he knew of sexual misconduct occurring in the laundry room and closets, and that male staff kept a mattress in the boiler room for clandestine sexual rendezvous with female prisoners. Coffee said he witnessed one female prisoner, clad only in her underwear, accompanying a guard on the observation platforman area off limits to prisoners. Coffee also told of a unit manager who received oral sex from a prisoner in a supply room. Finally, Coffee reported that some clergy and therapists also had sex with the women. One therapist, according to Coffee, had a picture of a naked prisoner in his office.

Douglass-Coffee related to SPR investigators that "consensual" sex between prisoners and male and female staff was rampant at ORW, even though staff knew such relationships were illegal and an abuse of power.

Under Ohio law it is a felony for prison employees to have sex with prisoners. Even so, those accused of sexual misconduct were rarely fired and certainly did not face criminal prosecution, according to Daniell, Coffee, and Douglass-Coffee. Commonly, staff accused of sexual misconduct were simply transferredsometimes to a more desirable positiongiving rise to the phrase "screw up and move up," according to Coffee. Consequently, said Coffee, ORW has become "a bad blemish" on the integrity of the state corrections system. He noted that it had the worst reputation of any Ohio prison.

All three whistleblowers confirmed that women who dared report abuses were isolated in solitary confinement, sometimes for weeks at a time. Douglass-Coffee noted that conditions in the hole could be horrific. "This is a disgusting place," said Lara Stemple, SPR's executive director. "It is filthy. The walls are smeared with blood and feces; there is no access to the outside. This is incredibly psychologically difficult to endure, particularly in the aftermath of abuse."

ORW warden Deborah Timmerman-Cooper confirmed to SPR that women who report sexual abuse are routinely placed in isolation, asserting that the policy is in place to protect the prisoner until an investigation can be completed. When asked by SPR why prisoners in protective segregation "should be stripped of basic privileges and locked in isolation 23 hours a day," Timmerman-Cooper could not provide an answer. "Placing a woman who reports sexual abuse in solitary confinement is counterproductive and abusive," said Stemple. "This policy punishes the victim, emboldens perpetrators, and makes it much easier for abuse to flourish."

According to the report, the allegations of the three former staff members are substantiated by years of media accounts documenting "a recurring problem with sexual abuse and sexual misconduct behind bars throughout the state." In 2003 alone, 33 Ohio prison employees were fired for engaging in "inappropriate sexual activity" with prisoners.

The report cites a number of examples. Among them: In 2000, Northeast Pre-Release Center guard Sean Bannerman, 28, was charged with having sexual relationships with two prisoners. Another guard, Earl Morris, 32, was indicted for helping Bannerman conduct the relationships. One prisoner sued ORW in 1988 after she was raped by a guard and then placed in isolation when she reported it. The report notes that sexual abuse is common in Ohio county jails as well.

During the course of its investigation, SPR spoke with former prisoners at ORW. The discussions further support allegations that ORW prisoners live amid a climate of fear, abuse, and retaliation.

One former prisoner told SPR that guards attacked her in the hole after she reported being raped. The 7 to 8 male guards-burst into her cell, wrapped a towel around her neck, and screamed, among other things, "Listen bitch, do you know we can kill you?" The guards then held her down on the bed while they choked her and spat in her face, said the woman. According to the report, her finger was dislocated in the attack.

Other former prisoners told of guards routinely exchanging favors and presents for sex and of guards retaliating against prisoners for reporting sexual abuse.

Another prisoner claimed she was raped by guard Jerome Willis in the juvenile wing at ORW. Willis was also seen having sex with a different prisoner in the shower area of the juvenile wing. Willis was arrested and indicted on four counts of sexual battery; but, one charge was dismissed and he was found not guilty on the others.

The report noted that in Ohio, a conspicuous culture of silence and denial surrounds the issue of prisoner rape. SPR blasted Reginald Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DORC), for his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the problem. Wilkinson even publicly opposed the Rape Elimination Act of 2003 and characterized the notion that rape commonly occurs in prison as "a flat-out lie."

"His dismissive attitude is one of the most irresponsible positions an American Corrections official has publicly asserted on the issue of sexual assault behind bars in recent memory, and it sends a message to Ohio corrections staff members that abuse can be committed with impunity," asserted the report.

A copy of the report can be obtained online only at, Stop Prisoner Rape, 3325 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 340, Los Angeles, CA 90010. Phone: (213) 384-1400.

Sources: SPR report, Cleveland Plain Dealer

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