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Colorado Guards Rarely Jailed for Sexual Abuse of Prisoners

by Matt Clarke

Although not uncommon, any kind of sexual contact between a guard and a prisoner is considered coercive sexual abuse under Colorado state law. This reflects the reality that prisoners cannot have truly consensual sex with a person who has total control and authority over them. Between 2005 and 2007, Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) investigators confirmed there were 62 complaints of sexual misconduct involving DOC employees and private contractors. Few spent much if any time behind bars.

In June 2009, U.S. District Court Judge David Ebel criticized prosecutors for allowing former DOC Sgt. Leshawn Terrell to plead guilty to a lesser charge and receive only 60 days in jail in a case involving unlawful sexual conduct and the forcible rape of a female prisoner. The prisoner sued the DOC and Terrell, and received a $250,000 settlement from the former and a $1.3 million award against the latter. [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.12; May 2009, p.1].

In 2006, Rusty Rollinson, a guard at the Brush Correctional Facility, was allowed to plead guilty to felony menacing; he received a two-year probated sentence in a case that involved sexual misconduct and the forcible rape of multiple female prisoners. The previous year, former Kit Carson Correctional Center Sgt. Teresa Carter, a Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) employee, received a two-year deferred sentence after a prisoner said he had sex with her four times – and produced nude pictures to back it up.

Why are criminal cases against prison guards not taken to trial but plea bargained for lesser charges and light sentences? A lack of credibility, prosecutors claim.

“So immediately, in front of the jury, I have a credibility problem,” said Assistant District Attorney Jim Bartkus of the 13th Judicial District, who reviews sexual assault complaints forwarded by the DOC’s inspector general for the three prisons in his district. “I have to calculate the impact of having a convicted felon as my primary witness. The defense is going to make sure that any given jury is going to be regaled with my star witness’ criminal convictions, and it has an almost automatic impact on their credibility.”

Yet prosecutors often use witnesses who have criminal records when prosecuting defendants who aren’t guards, and apparently have little trouble securing convictions in such cases. Further, civil suits by sexually abused prisoners are often successful. Those cases also depend on the jury’s assessment of the prisoner’s credibility. Thus, it seems more likely that prosecutors simply aren’t interested in vigorously defending prisoners’ right to be free from sexual assaults by prison staff.

Bartkus also claimed that loss of employment may be a sufficient deterrent for guards who are inclined to sexually abuse prisoners. “I think it probably has a more significant deterrent effect to other DOC employees because of the loss of jobs and loss of career,” he said. Yet would a prosecutor accept the same argument – loss of employment – as a sufficient deterrent for rape and sexual abuse outside of prison? If not, that creates an unjustifiable double standard.

What may be a real deterrent is civil lawsuits. DOC spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti said the DOC was pleased with the large amount of damages awarded by Judge Ebel. However, this leaves the prisoner who was sexually abused as the person who is responsible for enforcement of the laws. Would anyone accept that as a just result outside of the prison context?

It appears that the real problem is the attitude, and priorities, of prison officials and prosecutors – not the credibility of prisoner witnesses who are raped or sexually abused by prison staff.

Source: Denver Post

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