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Report: Federal Prison Guards Sexually Abuse Prisoners With Near Impunity

By Michael Rigby

Federal prison guards and other employees who have sex with prisoners are rarely prosecuted, and when convictions do result the punishment is often trivial, according to a report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). The April 2005 report, Deterring Staff Sexual Abuse of Federal Inmates, blames the problem on light penalties and loopholes in federal law.

Between fiscal years (FY) 2000 and 2004, 351 federal prison employees were investigated for alleged sexual abuse of prisoners. Of those, OIG investigators found enough evidence in 163 of the cases to refer them for prosecution. However, fewer than half (45%) were accepted by prosecutors. Even worse, the 65 that were eventually convicted received lenient sentences. The majority (73%) received probation, 15% were sentenced to less than 1 year in jail, and one received only a fine. Just 8% were sentenced to more than 1 year imprisonment.

Consequently, investigators reported that these predators are emboldened by a culture of impunity, believing they either won’t be caught or that there will be no repercussions if they are. They’re generally right. The report cited one case in which prosecutors refused to pursue action against a teacher who confessed to having sex with a prisoner, referring to it as a “stupid sex case” and a “waste of time.” “Why do you people keep bothering us with these cases?” the prosecutor asked OIG agents. “It’s only a misdemeanor!”

Under federal law, punishment ranges for sexual assaults not involving force or the threat of force are absurdly small. For instance, sexual abuse of a prisoner, 18 U.S.C. § 2243 (occurring when a sex act is committed), is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 1 year imprisonment. Sexual contact, 18 U.S.C. § 2244(a)(4), which involves touching a prisoner in sexual areas for lewd purposes, is also a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum sentence of 6 months. By contrast, 43 states impose penalties of more than 1 year imprisonment for unforced sex acts with prisoners.

The report further noted that due to the inherent inequality of their positions, the potential for security problems arising from compromised guards, and the fact that these predators often target prisoners who have been sexually abused in the past, sex between staff and prisoners is never viewed as consensual—it is always illegal. Many times, guards and other staff prey on prisoners who are psychologically weak, disabled or otherwise vulnerable.

In one case cited by the report, a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) psychiatrist at a Metropolitan Detention Center was charged with seven counts of sexual abuse of a ward for having sexual relations with his female mental health patients. He was sentenced to 1 year in jail. In another case, a BOP guard was sentenced to 12 years in prison and 3 years supervised release after being convicted on 11 counts of sexual abuse and sexual contact with prisoners. The guard, who worked at a Federal Transfer Center, had targeted former prostitutes and those facing deportation.

Guards and staff who monitor the 27,000 federal prisoners in contract facilities typically escape prosecution altogether. Courts have generally found that private facilities under contract with the BOP are not encompassed by the statutory language of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2241-2244, which govern sexual abuse of prisoners by prison staff. [However, prisoners who assault staff at such facilities are being convicted of assaulting a federal officer!] Consequently, when the OIG refers sexual abuse cases for prosecution that occur in these private prisons or halfway houses, they must rely on state prosecutors who tend to “focus their limited resources on prosecuting sexual abuse involving state, rather than federal, inmates.” The report notes that many states specifically include contract facilities in statutes governing the sexual abuse of prisoners by staff.

This pervasive sexual abuse—which investigators recognized is significantly underreported because prisoners generally fear retaliation and/or assume they won’t be believed—exposes the BOP to civil and criminal liability. Without providing specifics, the report notes that the BOP paid $600,000 (presumably during the investigation period, FY 2000-2004) to settle two separate lawsuits brought by prisoners who were abused by staff.

The sexual abuse also causes significant harm to the prisoners. According to one BOP psychiatrist cited in the report, prisoners “may experience deep psychological and emotional trauma by being sexually abused in prison … [and] may suffer disciplinary actions for engaging in sexual relations with staff such as solitary confinement or undesirable transfers to another institution far from their families.”

The report made three specific recommendations, which investigators believe will help curtail instances of sexual abuse in federal prisons and contract facilities: 1) increase the maximum penalty for sexual abuse of a ward to 5 years imprisonment; 2) increase the maximum penalty for abusive sexual contact to 2 years imprisonment; and, 3) extend federal criminal jurisdiction to persons who have sex with federal prisoners in detention facilities under contract with the BOP. PLN reports extensively on prison rape issues. See indexes for more. The report is available on PLN’s website at

Additional Sources: Tacoma News-Tribune, New York Times, Associated Press

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