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Washington DOC Agrees to Change Sexual Abuse Policies

by David M. Reutter

The Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) has agreed to change its policies that relate to preventing, reporting and investigating sexual abuse of prisoners by staff members. The changes resulted from a settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by five female prisoners who claimed they were sexually abused by male guards.

The settlement was reached between the WDOC and three of the prisoners who are still incarcerated. The other two plaintiffs have since been released from prison.

The lawsuit named six guards at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). Accused of engaging in sexual misconduct were Sgt. Steve Fewkes and guards Johnnie Davis, Gregory Fontenette, Kenneth Lane, Leonard Merkle and Marvin Taylor.
The complaint also listed 20 “John Doe” guards who worked “at WCCW, Pine Lodge, Mission Creek, and other work release facilities where women prisoners reside.” Each of the prisoner plaintiffs was named as Jane Doe.

The lawsuit cited incidents in which guards traded gifts or rewards for sexual activity involving prisoners. “Davis spent several months in 2005 cultivating a personal relationship with Jane Doe 4, which included giving her items such as a book, a greeting card, candy, fast food, and money.” He exploited their relationship for “his personal gratification” on October 26, 2005, when he took her “into a closet next to the staff bathroom in the unit ostensibly for the purpose of cleaning.” Once in the closet, “Davis proceeded to kiss and suck Jane Doe 4’s breast, placed his hands in her pants, fondled her vagina, and rubbed himself against her.” A second such incident involving Jane Doe 4 occurred in the staff bathroom in November 2005; immediately after that incident, Davis gave her $150.

The relationship between Fewkes and Jane Doe 1 began on the second day they worked together on a maintenance crew alone. During that July 2005 workday, “Fewkes had Jane Doe 1 perform oral sex on him.” A few days later Fewkes was transferred to a different position; he sent Jane Doe 1 letters through the prison mail system, requesting that she find a way to reply.

The two were reunited in early 2005. Over the next five months, “Fewkes repeatedly engaged in vaginal intercourse and oral sex with Jane Doe 1.” Most of those incidents occurred in the property room, but their final encounter took place in the guard’s station.

Fontenette had relationships with Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2 between December 2004 and January 2006. While only fondling occurred with Jane Doe 2, he fondled, kissed and forced Jane Doe 1 to perform oral sex on him.

Jane Doe 1 also alleged that Lane had sexually assaulted her by lifting her shirt and fondling her breasts in April or May 2007. In mid-2005, Merkle sexually assaulted Jane Doe 3 on several occasions. He would rub himself against her, fondle her and force her to perform oral sex and engage in intercourse.

The complaint further charged that in March 2006, Merkle appeared at Jane Doe 1’s cell in the middle of the night, ordered her to accompany him to the guard’s station and then sexually assaulted her “by forcing her to engage in sexual intercourse.” He also forced Jane Doe 4 to give him oral sex once and to engage in intercourse three times between March and November 2005.

Finally, the complaint detailed the sexual assaults by Taylor. Beginning in August 2005, he “repeatedly assaulted Jane Doe 1, forcing her to perform oral sex and by fondling her.” Taylor also forced Jane Doe 2 “to show her genitalia” and “to masturbate” for him. While not named as a defendant, another WDOC guard, Darrell Chamberlin, was accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting Jane Doe 2 in return for gifts.

The lawsuit was certified as a class action on June 12, 2009. The settlement, which was reached with Jane Does 1, 3, and 4 and the class members in July 2010, provides for injunctive relief that will be enforced for three years. Five of the six guards named in the suit have resigned or been fired.

Under the terms of the settlement, the WDOC is required to comply with policy changes regarding Staff Misconduct of a Sexual Nature and Staff Sexual Misconduct. The intention of the policy changes is to “promote safety, security, and the [WDOC’s] zero tolerance policy regarding sexual misconduct.” The policies will require initiation of employee discipline when an allegation is substantiated.

Since the lawsuit was filed in August 2007, numerous changes have been made at WDOC women’s prisons. At the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, clutter, doors, window coverings and other obstructions were removed to improve sightlines. A 58-camera surveillance system and convex mirrors were installed. To improve privacy, solid shower curtains and obscured glass were placed in the showers.

At WCCW, a 127-camera surveillance system was installed. Similar privacy protections were implemented and sightline obstructions removed at that facility. Posters for the Prison Rape Elimination Act were put up, and a toll-free hotline was made available so prisoners could more easily report sexual abuse. The Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women has since closed.

In all, the policy changes are designed to facilitate better reporting by prisoners without fear of retaliation by staff, and to discourage staff from engaging in sexual misconduct or abuse by strengthening the investigatory process. The WDOC will be required to report its actions to class counsel in regard to implementation of the settlement provisions and any staff sexual misconduct investigations.

“The courageous women who filed this lawsuit have given voice to all those who were afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation, or who were disbelieved or ignored when they complained about being sexually abused by staff,” said Beth A. Colgan, one of the attorneys who represented the prisoners.

Previously, in June 2009, the WDOC had agreed to pay the five Jane Doe plaintiffs a total of $1 million to settle the monetary claims in the suit. [See: PLN, Nov. 2009, p.24].

The class was represented by Colgan and Melissa Lee of Columbia Legal Services, and by Hank Balson and Nancy Chupp of the Public Interest Law Group. See: Jane Doe v. Clarke, Thurston County Superior Court (WA), Case No. 07-2-01513-0.

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Related legal case

Jane Doe v. Clarke