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Former Female Prisoners Settle Sexual Abuse Lawsuit in Virginia

State officials at Virginia’s Pocahontas Correctional Unit have reached a settlement agreement with nine former female prisoners who sued after being sexually abused by prison employees. The terms of the settlement, which was approved by the Governor’s office in July 2008, remain confidential. According to court documents, however, one of the plaintiffs received $2,500 as her part of the settlement.

The federal lawsuit charged that “between 2003 and 2006 there was extensive and ongoing sexual abuse of inmates at the prison by various corrections officers, employees, and educators at the prison.” The prisoners kept quiet because they were threatened with harm or reprisals, including transfers to less desirable prisons.

“This activity was widespread and … known to prison officials, including [former superintendent Tammy] Estep and [former chief of security Marilyn] Hill, who condoned these activities, helped cover them up, and threatened and retaliated against uncooperative inmates,” the suit alleged.

The cover-up ended when convicted murderer Sheron M. Montrey became pregnant by guard Bobby G. Brown, Jr. in 2005. Brown said the prison was “grossly understaffed,” which required guards to rely on prisoners to perform institutional duties, bringing guards and prisoners together in close contact.

“Thus, the officers were free to conduct sexual relationships and otherwise illegally fraternize with the inmates,” said Brown. He added that Hill and Estep “did nothing to investigate the many reports, rumors, and recent events about illegal sexual activity until Montrey became pregnant.” Brown was convicted on criminal charges for having sex with Montrey; he was originally named in the lawsuit but later dropped as a defendant.

A state grievance hearing officer found that incidents of sexual abuse at the prison were known at the highest echelons of the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC). In reversing Estep’s demotion, the hearing officer said “there was overwhelming testimony that, over a period of years, sexual activity took place at this facility.” Estep was deemed not fully responsible because “it was clear that all levels of management in [the DOC] above [Estep] were aware of these potential safety issues as they were occurring and as they were being investigated, and nothing was being done.”

Staff at the Pocahontas facility were clearly aware of the sexual abuse, and many participated in it. The lawsuit named six guards and an education instructor. “Much of the sexual activity at the prison took place at [a] trailer, the cathouse [a shelter for rescued cats], or the mailroom; all of which were outside the prison fence,” said Brown.

Since the nine former prisoners filed suit, the 260-bed facility has changed its name to Central Virginia Correctional Unit # 13. While Hill and Estep no longer work at the prison, they are still employed by the DOC. Most of the other defendants in the suit no longer work for the state. See: Montrey v. Commonwealth of Virginia, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Va.), Case No. 3:07-cv-00476.

As for Montrey, she had her baby in February 2006. After she was released she gained custody of her child, and they are reportedly doing well.

Sources: Richmond Times-Dispatch,

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Related legal case

Montrey v. Commonwealth of Virginia