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Former Delaware Prisoner Settles Sexual Assault Suit for $287,500 and Policy Changes

by Derek Gilna and Brandon Sample

Former Delaware state prisoner Michelle Bloothoofd has settled a federal lawsuit filed against the Delaware Department of Correction (DOC), the Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution (BWCI), Warden Patrick Ryan, guard Anthony Antonio and other prison officials, after she was sexually assaulted by Antonio on October 12, 2008. Her complaint alleged deficiencies in the DOC’s policies and procedures related to sexual activity at BWCI; it also alleged retaliation by guards and DOC officials after she filed an administrative complaint.

Bloothoofd stated in her lawsuit that she was fondled and groped by Antonio in her cell after she returned from a shower, and he forced her to perform oral sex. He then threatened that if she reported the incident she would be put into isolation at BWCI. After Antonio left the cell, Bloothoofd spit his semen into a blue plastic glove he had left behind; the next morning she went to the prison’s medical unit and reported that Antonio had raped her. Warden Ryan and other prison officials were notified of the incident but took no immediate action.

Bloothoofd was then taken to Christiana Hospital where she turned over the semen-filled glove to a forensic nurse examiner, who swabbed the fluid in the glove and confirmed that sperm was present. The hospital contacted the Delaware State Police. Bloothoofd subsequently sent a letter to BWCI officials, including the Internal Affairs Investigation Department, with details of the rape.

Delaware State Police Detective Mary Basikowski interviewed Antonio, who admitted that he had had sexual contact with Bloothoofd, which was a prohibited act under 11 Delaware Code, Section 1259. Officer Basikowski advised Warden Ryan of Antonio’s admission, and Antonio resigned his position at BWCI. Officer Perez, another guard who had been implicated by Antonio in similar incidents, also resigned.

According to Bloothoofd’s federal lawsuit, “At no time after Ms. Bloothoofd saw [the nurse] ... on October 13, 2008 did anyone from BWCI or DOC interview [her] about the rape, either before or after Antonio’s resignation.”

The complaint detailed a harrowing laundry list of alleged actions and/or inaction, inattentiveness and lack of concern for the welfare of prisoners at BWCI. Despite the clear existence of unlawful sexual activity by prison employees that constituted Eighth Amendment violations, Warden Ryan and his staff “did not document facts and circumstances describing how, when, or where inappropriate sexual activities, sexual assaults, or rapes occurred within BWCI....” The absence of “policies to require investigation of the facts ... [resulted in] an environment where systemic problems in prison facilities, staffing, or procedures were not cured and where future similar sexual assaults could continue to take place.”

Three years after filing suit, in September 2011, Bloothoofd and the DOC entered into a settlement agreement wherein the DOC agreed to follow all regulations required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The terms of the 21-page settlement also included provisions requiring BWCI to: 1) adopt and enforce a written zero-tolerance of sexual abuse policy; 2) appoint a PREA coordinator; 3) set up a formal communications infrastructure and internal quality assurance mechanism to implement policy changes; 4) provide multiple ways for prisoners to easily, privately and securely report allegations of sexual abuse, or any retaliation connected with such complaints; 5) protect all prisoners and staff from retaliation for reporting sexual abuse; 6) provide for the investigation of third-party complaints of sexual abuse; 7) require all staff to report to the PREA coordinator and DOC Internal Affairs any knowledge or suspicion of sexual abuse or retaliation; 8) require reporting of sexual abuse that occurred at other DOC facilities; 9) provide supervision to protect prisoners from sexual abuse; 10) immediately respond to sexual abuse complaints; 11) set guidelines for first responders to preserve evidence in sexual abuse cases; 12) investigate all allegations of sexual abuse, including third-party and anonymous reports, for referral for criminal prosecution, disciplinary action or critical incident reviews; 13) exempt complaints of sexual assault from the prison grievance process; 14) limit cross-gender viewing and searches; 15) increase the use of security cameras and safety and security upgrades in living units and shower areas at BWCI; 16) provide training to all BWCI guards and other staff concerning sexual abuse; and 17) appropriately discipline staff for any violations of the DOC’s sexual abuse policy.

“We applaud the Delaware Department of Corrections for agreeing to take important steps to minimize sexual assault in Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution,” Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the ACLU of Delaware, said in a press release. “DOC is actively working to prevent, detect and appropriately respond to the violent, criminal act of rape and other forms of sexual abuse. They are taking nationally recognized steps that will make Delaware a leader in efforts to create a safer prison environment.”

In addition to the policy changes, the DOC agreed to pay a total of $287,500 in damages and attorney fees, including $60,000 payable to the ACLU Foundation of Delaware. Bloothoofd was represented by attorneys John W. Shaw and Pilar G. Kraman from Wilmington, Delaware and Richard H. Morse of the ACLU of Delaware. See: Bloothoofd v. Danberg, U.S.D.C. (D. Del.), Case Nos. 1:09-cv-00179-SLR and 1:10-cv-00868-SLR (consolidated).

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Related legal case

Bloothoofd v. Danberg