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Michigan's Dirty Little Secret: Sexual Abuse of Female Prisoners Pervasive, Ongoing

by Michael Rigby

Despite reports of sexual abuse dating back 20 years ... despite a tumultuous decade of lawsuits that cost millions of taxpayer dollars ... and despite a promise by state officials to implement sweeping reforms, the sexual victimization of women continues unabated in Michigan prisons, according to a five month investigation by the Detroit News.

Details of the investigation, published May 22-24, 2005, put in stark relief Michigan's ongoing failure to protect the state's 2,000 female prisoners from abuse by guards and other employees. Sexual misconduct complaints are routinely dismissed on dubious grounds. Investigations are often superficial and incomplete. And guards who sexually assault prisoners are rarely punished.

The victims have little recourse. Women who report predatory guards face punishment and retaliation. State lawmakers have exacerbated the problem by stripping prisoners of their right to sue, ensuring that guards--many of whom have lengthy criminal records--will continue to view female prisoners as their personal sex slaves. Faced with these hurdles, many women conclude there's only one way to end the abuse.

We're going to use this," guard Albert Moon told a terrified Tina McGraw as he showed her the first of two condoms plucked from his shirt pocket. Handing her the other one, he said, This is for the second time." The rape occurred in McGraw's cell at the 860-bed Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth. Days later, on October 17, 1997, McGraw tried to commit suicide by ingesting a bottle of Haldol, a potent antipsychotic drug.

McGraw wasn't the first woman Moon had driven to suicide. In October 1992, Katherine Finzel, 22, complained that Moon was sexually harassing her and that he tried to assault her in the prison infirmary while another guard acted as lookout. That same year, Finzel's cellmate told prison officials a guard had assaulted Finzel in their bathroom. Still, prison officials did nothing. With no help and no hope, Finzel hanged herself in her cell on February 9, 1993.

Unbelievably, Moon was never disciplined or charged even though he was a known predator around the prison. He's got a long reputation here," former guard Julie Kennedy Carpenter stated in a 1999 deposition. When I first got here, they warned me about him. He figured he was going to get away with things forever. He used to brag about that all the time.
It was a year before McGraw felt safe enough to report the rape. She had been reluctant, McGraw told the State Police after she had been transferred to the 820-bed Huron Valley Facility in Ypsilanti, because when she reported another guard, Larrick Reed, for assaulting her years earlier he was not investigated but merely transferred to another prison. (After talking to McGraw, the State Police did investigate Reed, and in 1998 he was convicted.)

Moon, who was accused of attacking four other women, was ultimately convicted of sexually assaulting McGraw and another prisoner, Karen Fournier, in October 1998. His punishment? Two years probation and 139 days in jail--the amount of time he had already served.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death among prisoners, according to the National Institute of Corrections. Prisoners who have been sexually assaulted are especially vulnerable. Since 1990, at least eight women have attempted suicide in Michigan prisons after complaining of sexual abuse. The abuse can also lead to post-traumatic stress disorder or rape trauma syndrome; heighten pre-existing mental disorders, cause depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders; and increase the risk of committing crimesespecially violent ones--upon release. Interestingly, violent attacks on staff rapists rarely if ever seem to occur.

Legacy of Abuse, Suppression

Michigan has a long and sordid history of sexual abuse in its female prisons. In 1993, the Michigan Women's Commission expressed concern over the level of sexual assault and harassment. In 1996, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report detailed a pattern of rape and sexual assault by male guards. A subsequent HRW report in 1998 noted high levels of retaliation against prisoners who reported abuse--a practice that still exists.

For years, politicians and prison officials have worked to keep the abuse hidden. When the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation in 1994, for example, Governor John Engler, who left office in 2003, responded by banning investigators from the state's female prisons. In June 1998, the United Nations also planned to visit the prisons in connection with a report on U.S. women's prisons in general. The day before the scheduled visit, however, Engler refused investigators access to the prisons, calling the U.N. an unwitting tool in the Justice Department's agenda to discredit the State of Michigan.

Without official cooperation, a U.N. investigator still managed to talk with current Michigan prisoners and to meet with guards and former prisoners. Afterwards, the investigator said she was astonished that the prisons that she saw on video in Michigan and the prison that she toured in Minnesota were in the same country." Since then, prison officials have restricted media and investigative access to the prisons and prisoners, and in 2000 banned tape recorders and cameras.

Not surprisingly, the barbarous conditions have spawned a number of lawsuits. Two were filed in 1996. One, reported already in PLN, brought by 32 female prisoners alleging endemic sexual abuse, settled on July 31, 2000, for $3.8 million. The other, which involves about 440 female prisoners, is still pending. In 1997, the Justice Department also sued the Michigan Department Of Corrections (MDOC) after its investigation revealed pervasive sexual abuse. The MDOC settled the Justice Department's suit in 1999 by agreeing to institute broad reforms.

Justice Denied

Many of the promised changes, however, have either not been implemented or only partially implemented. Instead, Michigan lawmakers, have sought to silence the victims of sexual abuse by eliminating any legal recourse they may have.

The latest move came in 2003 when the legislature voted to kill the Corrections Ombudsman Office, which investigated claims of sexual assaults and other prisoner complaints. Created in 1975 as an independent fact finder, the office had been steadily weakened since its inception. Lawmakers had already cut the agency's staff and restricted its investigative powers, allowing it to open investigations only at the request of a legislator.

But Michigan lawmakers have taken other steps to quell prisoner complaints as well. In 1999, they revamped Michigan's Civil Rights Act (CRA) to specifically exclude prisoners after March 2000. The same year, legislators imposed a physical injury requirement for sex assault victims to obtain damages. Now, guards can grope or rape prisoners to their heart's content, so long as their careful not to injure them. If you stood the women up naked like the guy did in Abu Ghraib, under the law in Michigan, they couldn't make a claim," said attorney Deborah Labelle, lead attorney in a class action lawsuit against the MDOC.

In February 2005, Michigan's Appeals Court, in an unpublished opinion, upheld the CRA change, which could obliterate the claims of about 150 of the more than 440 prisoners involved in a current class-action suit. See: Neal v. Department of Corrections, 2005 WL 326883 (Mich.App.).

By stripping imprisoned women of this basic civil right, the state has emboldened sexual predators who may be attracted to prison work," said Michael Pitt, an attorney in one of the class-action suits. The state has turned its back on our mothers, sisters, and daughters at a time when they are most vulnerable and unable to protect themselves from the men the state hired to oversee them.

Four women in danger of having their suits dismissed are involved in a pending criminal case against Stephen L. Davis, a former prison warehouse worker. Davis, 44, is charged with 1 count of indecent exposure and 5 counts of criminal sexual misconduct involving 5 female prisoners. In their statements to police, the women said Davis assaulted them between May 1998 and June 2000. Three of the women said Davis forced them to touch his genitals or fondled them. The other two said he forced them to perform oral sex. Davis failed to show up for a scheduled hearing in March 2005 and is now a fugitive.

Supporters argue the law changes protect the state from frivolous lawsuits. What they don't say is that they also provide immunity from legitimate claims. Supporters also wrongly maintain that state prisoners are protected by federal law. But like the current Michigan law, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) also requires prisoners to prove lasting physical injury to recover damages for mental or emotional harm.
What's more, the onus of prosecuting sexually abusive guards is increasingly left up to the Attorney General's Office--the same entity tasked with defending the state against prisoner lawsuits seeking damages. Wayne County, for instance, where half the state's female prisoners are located, quit prosecuting guards accused of sexual abuse in March 2005 citing a shortage of prosecutors. As a result, the prosecution of these predatory guards is less than diligent, with many escaping prosecution altogether.

Take the case of Henry Lloyd Rockey, a prison maintenance worker. In 1998, three women accused Rockey of repeatedly groping them and forcing them to perform oral sex. After a State Police Investigation corroborated a portion of the women's stories, Rockey was charged with five counts of misdemeanor criminal sexual contact. Though he lost his job, Rockey never stood trial. A judge threw the case out in April 2000 after prosecutors failed to timely submit their witness list.

Rockey's case is far from exceptional. In fact, of the state's 31 prison employees charged with sex crimes, 28 ended as misdemeanors. At least four had their charges reduced from criminal sexual conduct to assault and battery--meaning they won't have to register as sex offenders. And no one has been charged under a new 2000 law that makes any sexual contact with prisoners a felony punishable by 15 years in prison.

See No Evil

The problem is so entrenched that sexual abuse can continue for years unchecked as prison officials and co-workers turn a blind eye to the assaults. In the case of former guard Michael Everett, the abuse went on for a decade despite several investigations.

Prisoner Angela Curtis, 36, said she first had sex with Everett in 1992 after he resolved a major disciplinary ticket another guard had written her. It was just a barter for sex," Curtis said. I was young, I was very scared, and all I wanted was to go home. If I had that ticket on my record, I would have been flopped for parole. If it took exchanging sex with a guard [to get home], that's what you did." After that, Curtis said she began to develop feelings for Everett, who wrote her romantic letters and vowed to help her raise her 4 kids.

The length of Everett's involvement with Curtis is especially telling since he survived three investigations during that time. In 1993, Everett was informally reprimanded after prisoner Ann Denny complained that his harassment, threats, and ogling her in the shower caused her to have a panic attack. In 1994, prisoner Sally Jackson accused Everett of sexually harassing her. Investigators closed that case as unfounded. Everett's involvement with Curtis was first noted in October 1998 when another prisoner wrote a grievance alleging Everett had written her a disciplinary ticket for insolence after she commented on his relationship with Curtis. Curtis denied the relationship and the case was closed.

It wasn't until she was released on parole in November 2002 that Curtis realized she had been used. For a long time, I kept quiet because I felt like I was responsible for the situation," she said. I came to realize after a while that he was really using me for sex, and he didn't really mean anything he wrote or told me.

On July 16, 2004, State Police questioned Everett after Curtis turned over the letters he had written her. Two days later, Everett, 53, walked out in his front yard and shot himself in the head. He was the second Michigan prison guard accused of sexually abusing female prisoners to commit suicide. Guard Bernard Rivers Jr., 40, also shot himself at his home in February 1990 after he was charged with raping prisoner Jacqueline Urbina in her cell.

Curtis concurred with the notion that sexually abusive guards tend to prey on weak or vulnerable prisoners. Women in prison have major issues and are very needy," she said. Most have drug problems or emotional problems from prior abuse." For her part, Curtis said she was particularly vulnerable because she was still mourning the death of her first husband, who died in 1990, the year before she was sent to prison.

Speak to Evil

Often, the MDOC skirts protocol when investigating complaints of sexual abuse by employees--especially high-ranking ones. Willis Chapman, Assistant Deputy Warden at the Robert Scott prison is one example. He was accused of having sex with a prisoner in 2002. Yet, without even interviewing Chapman, and despite overwhelming evidence, investigators concluded the case was unfounded. Tammy LaCross, the accuser, was punished for lying.

Chapman came under scrutiny in June 2000 when prisoner Joyce Van Norman informed two guards that she had acted as look out for Chapman while he was having sex with LaCross. It was the, second time a prisoner had notified officials of the deputy warden's sexual misconduct. In September 2001, Velvet Farley Johnson, 20, told 5 guards she had been having sex with Chapman, then 45. None of the guards, however, reported Johnson's admission--a violation of both state law and MDOC policy.

After Van Norman's allegation, guards Bradford Laird and Paul Raymond, who worked in the prison's control center, began monitoring Chapman's interaction with the prisoners. Later, the pair informed Assistant Deputy Warden Patricia Rodgers that they suspected Chapman was having sex with prisoners. Rodgers then notified Richard Stock, another assistant warden, and Warden Clarice Stovall.

At this point--according to MDOC policy--the probe should have been handed over to Internal Affairs because allegations of intercourse were involved. Prison officials should have also limited Chapman's access to prisoners. Neither action was taken. Instead, Chapman continued to work with the women he was accused of raping--as well as potential witnesses--and MDOC regional director Steven Wendry was called in to run the investigation.
At first, Wendry interviewed only LaCross and two other prisoners. All three denied anything happened, and Wendry closed the investigation two days later. On July 10, 2002, Warden Stovall rejected Wendry's initial report and ordered him to interview the other witnesses. Wendry then interviewed guard Laird--but not Raymond or Ms. Van Norman--and a week later again closed the investigation as unfounded." This time his report was accepted. Van Norman was punished for making a false statement and confined to her cell for 7 days, and Chapman was allowed to continue prowling the prison.

Eight months later, the mailroom intercepted a letter from LaCross to another prisoner, Sally Jackson. In her correspondence, which contained personal details about Chapman and his family, LaCross confided to Jackson that she and the warden had a 2-year relationship and that he was really good to me." When interviewed, Jackson admitted LaCross and Chapman were having sex. Jackson said she had become so concerned about LaCross at one point that she wrote a letter to MDOC Director William Overton but never got a response. This time, the matter was turned over to Internal Affairs.
The ensuing investigation sustained allegations that Chapman had sex with LaCross and Farley Johnson. (Accusations made by three other women were not pursued because they had been released from prison.) Chapman was subsequently fired for violating 5 MDOC rules--including sexual misconduct--but not criminally charged. In fact, he didn't even stay fired. Ten months after his August 28, 2003, firing, arbitration hearing officer Benjamin Wolkinson determined LaCross and Johnson weren't credible, and ignoring all of the other witnesses and evidence, ordered Chapman reinstated with back pay.

Evidence Ignored

Prosecutors and prison officials are typically quick to dismiss prisoner complaints of sexual abuse, assuming that because they're in prison they must also be liars. Your witness is not going to be as credible because ... they were convicted of a crime," said Branch County Prosecutor Kirk Kashian. If it comes down to the credibility of the two witnesses, the scales are not really going to tip [in the prisoner's favor]." Unless of course they are testifying for the government.

But even when the evidence is incontrovertible, guards are rarely punished appropriately, if at all. Take the troubling story of T'Nasa Harris, 29. In 2000, Harris was raped and impregnated by guard Edward Hook at Camp Brighton, a 440-bed boot camp in Pinckney. She initially denied the attack because she feared Hook would harm her family. Harris later revealed she had been threatened by Hook and a female corporal.

Hook was a known deviant. Three years before he raped Harris, prison officials received an anonymous letter calling him a sexual predator." Four months later, 18 women complained that Hook groped them during pat downs or ogled them in the shower. The response was laughable. On May 25, 1999--the day the Justice Department's suit was settled--prison officials admonished Hook in a memo to exercise better judgment." Eight months later, Hook forced prisoner Tiffany Gilmore to touch his penis. The following month, he raped Harris. In 2003, Hook pled guilty to two counts of misdemeanor sexual assault. He was sentenced to 1 year in jail.

Harris, who has since been released, said she tried several times to abort the fetus. She remains angry with Hook, whom she calls a monster, and with prison officials for failing to stop him. I was wrong for what I done and I'm still doing time for my wrongful doings," she wrote in a letter to prison officials. But nothing, nothing on this planet could make me believe I deserve to be raped and violated of my privacy.

Criminal Guards

Ironically, while prosecutors and prison officials invariably cast doubt on prisoner allegations by referencing their criminal pasts, many MDOC employees are ex-convicts themselves.

As part of the Justice Department settlement, the MDOC stopped hiring ex-felons in March 1996. But the rule change didn't apply to those already employed or to those convicted of misdemeanors. This allowed guards like Leroy Nelson--whose record was probably longer than most of the prisoners he guarded--to remain on the job.

Nelson's life of crime began in June 1957 when he was convicted of burglarizing a car. Then 19, he spent 10 days in jail. Three years later, Nelson was convicted of exposing his genitals in public. This time he was fined $100 and sentenced to one year of probation. In 1969, Nelson tried to rob a bar and was shot in the leg by an off-duty cop. He was convicted of armed robbery and served five years in prison. Shortly after his release in 1974, Nelson was convicted of larceny and sentenced to 15 days in jail and another year of probation. He was again back on the inside four years later--this time as a prison guard.

In 2000, Nelson was accused of another crime: carrying on a sexual relationship with a woman at the Robert Scott prison. When confronted by investigators, Nelson and the prisoner denied the allegations. He was never charged. Nelson retired with a pension in 2002 at age 65.

Experts familiar with Michigan prisons contend that the MDOC's reluctance to monitor or ferret out guards with criminal backgrounds undermines their pledged reforms. Of particular concern are guards who have been convicted or accused of domestic violence. Officers with a history of domestic abuse are especially disturbing," said Ernest A. Costa, a former professor of criminal justice at Wayne State University. What are the dynamics of domestic violence? It's power and control. That's the pattern you see in rapists.

And the prison is full of them. In 1998, after the MDOC performed criminal background checks, director Kenneth McGinnis expressed his amazement" at the number of guards who had been previously convicted of domestic abuse or other felonies. [Editor's Note: Federal law makes it illegal for anyone convicted of domestic violence, even misdemeanor charges, to possess or carry a firearm and this applies to police officers and jail and prison guards. Hence DOC employees with domestic violence convictions cannot legally carry a firearm in performance of their duties.]

Guard Thomas Portman, who began working at the Robert Scott prison in 1989, is a prime example. When his wife divorced him in October 1996, she noted in divorce papers that she had been forced to get a restraining order after Portman threw their 18-year-old daughter down the stairs. Portman was subsequently jailed for domestic violence. When the police notified prison officials they had a guard in jail, Warden Joan Yukins recommended a 30-day suspension. According to prison records, however, the sentence was reduced to 10 days on February 2, 1997.

By then Portman was already accused of assaulting two female prisoners, Tracy Neal and Stacy Barker. Guard Orlinda Mallet-Godwin, who uncovered the abuse, said he threatened to accuse her of selling drugs if she reported him. Portman was fired but acquitted on charges of third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

Changes Opposed

In August 2000, the MDOC decided to ban male guards from holding certain positions in female prisons. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the policy change on December 3, 2004, in Everson v. Michigan Department of Corrections, 391 F.3d 737 (6th Cir. 2004). The guards' union, which challenged the policy, apparently can't understand why male guards shouldn't work in female housing and shower areas.

Male guards were not actually removed from female prisoner living areas in Michigan prisons until December 29, 2005. They are finally taking steps toward ensuring the safety of women in their care," said Deborah LaBelle, I hope they will continue to take steps to end the degrading treatment of women in our prisons."

Tom Tylutke, president of the Michigan Corrections Officers Association, contends the number of sex-related convictions is not shocking considering about 200 male guards work in the state's female prisons. Every profession has their bad apples," he said. We feel (in our membership) they are very few and far between.

One wonders if Alisha Smith would agree. In a letter to her parents, the 32-year-old prisoner said she was being sexually harassed and begged for help. I'm not doing good," Smith plaintively wrote in the September 16, 2002, letter. I am experiencing some sexual harassment from staff. I need you to please send me the internal affairs address. Would you please do this for me?

Unfamiliar with the prison bureaucracy, Smith's parents were unable to help her. Five months later, on February 13, 2003, Smith was found dead in her cell. The victim of a few bad apples, she had hanged herself with a sheet.

[It's worth noting that sexual abuse is not limited to Michigan, or even to females. Prison rape is common in state and federal prisons nationwide and affects both men and women. Dedicated to exposing the abuse, PLN reports extensively on this issue. See indexes or visit online at for more.]

Source: The Detroit News

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