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$73,700 Jury Award for Guard’s Sexual Encounters with Massachusetts Prisoner

A Massachusetts federal jury has awarded $73,700 in damages to a woman who was repeatedly sexually assaulted while imprisoned at the South Middlesex Correctional Center (SMCC).

After being convicted of drug offenses in 2003, Christina Chao, 31, was sent to SMCC.
Shortly thereafter she began having sex with prison guard Moises Ballista. The complaint in her subsequent lawsuit said they had 50 to 100 sexual encounters, mostly consisting of her performing oral sex on him. [See: PLN, Feb. 2010, p.34].

According to Chao’s complaint, the first encounter occurred in June 2003 and they continued through September 2004. Ballista played favorites and provided benefits to women prisoners he liked. The sexual encounters between Ballista and Chao were initiated at least once or twice a week; sometimes he would wake her up so she could “service” him.

Rather than disciplining Ballista when rumors circulated that he was having sex with Chao and at least one other prisoner, SMCC officials posted him to the central control room. On at least one occasion Ballista had sex with Chao near or around the control room.

They also had sex in the bathroom in the visitor’s waiting room and in the administration hall. Both areas are visible to guards in the central control room. They further had sex in trailers used by prisoners to visit with their children.

Ballista maintained that even if he had violated state law, he should not be held civilly liable for engaging in consensual sex with Chao. That Ballista had violated the law was not in question, as he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of having sexual relations with a prisoner. He received a nine-month jail term and lost his job.

Chao, however, said she feared punishment if she discontinued the sexual relationship. She was afraid of being transferred, being placed in segregation and losing privileges such as visitation with her children.

Those fears were confirmed during an internal investigation. SMCC Director of Security Carl Spencer led Chao to believe that she would be “shipped out” if the sexual relationship became known, and told her she “should take this to the grave.”

While the internal investigation and rumors of Chao’s sexual encounters with Ballista were ongoing, SMCC nurses placed Chao on oral contraceptive pills. Ballista was also allowed to work the third shift, which provided him with easier access to Chao. She was even transferred to the same floor where he was assigned.

“I wanted it to end. I didn’t know how to stop it. I wanted it to end because it was very clear to me I was being used,” Chao said in a written statement. “Like I said it was maybe five times that we had intercourse out of 100 times that I gave him oral sex. There’s nothing, that’s not a relationship, that’s being used. It’s being degraded. It’s dirty. It’s not what I wanted. I am very ashamed.”

Ballista was finally fired in September 2004 and convicted of crimes related to his repeated sexual encounters with Chao in 2006. In response to Chao’s lawsuit, Ballista and the other defendants claimed that because she had “consented” to the sexual acts, they were not constitutional violations as a matter of law. Chao’s attorney countered that prisoners are unable to consent to sexual advances by prison staff.

On April 6, 2011 a 10-woman federal jury found that Ballista had violated Chao’s Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, and had subjected her to intentional infliction of emotional distress. Chao was awarded $67,500 in compensatory damages against Ballista and SMCC Superintendent Kelly A. Ryan, plus $6,200 in punitive damages against Ballista.

The defendants filed post-trial motions to alter the judgment, for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, for judgment as a matter of law and for a new trial, which were denied by the district court on July 28, 2011.

“Sex in prison is a complex and risky phenomenon,” the court wrote. “‘Consent’ is not easy to determine amidst the power dynamics between male captors and female inmates.”
The court held that it could not find that arguably consensual sex by a prisoner could never constitute a constitutional violation.

Chao was represented by Boston attorney Andrew M. Fischer; a motion for attorney fees remains pending. See: Chao v. Ballista, U.S.D.C. (D. Mass.), Case No. 1:07-cv-10934-NG.

Additional source: Boston Globe

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Related legal case

Chao v. Ballista