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Five Years after Implementation, PREA Standards Remain Inadequate

“We should not be tolerating rape in prison.” – President Barack Obama, July 2015

by Derek Gilna

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), passed unanimously by Congress in 2003, was a rare instance of bipartisan cooperation, and its passage signaled that public officials could no longer ignore the problem of sexual abuse in our nation’s penal system

While there is no longer any debate that rape and sexual assaults in prisons and jails are not to be tolerated, implementation of the PREA standards has been painfully slow and, as a result, prisoners continue to be sexually victimized. Prison Legal News has reported extensively on this problem, including cover stories in August 2006, May 2009 and April 2012.he Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), passed unanimously by Congress in 2003, was a rare instance of bipartisan cooperation, and its passage signaled that public officials could no longer ignore the problem of sexual abuse in our nation’s penal system.

Tulsa County, Oklahoma jailer Ashley Michelle Smith was arrested and charged with sexually battering a prisoner on September 29, 2017. She is accused of having an inappropriate relationship, and was previously placed on administrative leave while an investigation was conducted.

Although PREA has unquestionably changed the conversation on prison rape both within the corrections system and nationally, it is under siege from many directions. Critics contend the law itself is virtually toothless, and indeed 40 states had not complied with PREA standards as of 2016, resulting in token financial penalties that have done little to ensure future compliance.

Another worrisome development for PREA supporters is the fact that some lawmakers have attempted to weaken its provisions. Notably, U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the state with the highest number of prisoner sexual assaults, introduced a legislative amendment in 2014 that many prisoners’ rights experts said would discourage compliance with PREA. The measure would have halted federal financial penalties for non-compliant states over a four-year period, even if they were doing nothing to comply with the PREA standards.

Deenesha Lemandy Carter, 23, a guard at the Central State Prison in Georgia, pleaded guilty on June 19, 2017 and received five years’ probation for violating her oath of office. Carter, who had a sexual relationship with prisoner Walter Lee Harris, also lost her Peace Officer Standards and Training certification. She became pregnant and had Harris’ child before she was sentenced. “I’m young and I made a mistake,” she told the court.

The amendment, which was appended to the Second Chance Reauthorization Act, failed to pass. But it indicated that even the prevention of rape and sexual abuse was not off-limits for lawmakers seeking to reduce existing protections for prisoners.

Members of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission had responded to Senator Cornyn’s amendment by submitting a letter to then-Attorney General Eric Holder on November 12, 2014, noting that “Weakening of the [PREA] financial penalties has also been proposed by organizations working with or for corrections agencies.... There are many demands on public funds, and the use of state funds to eliminate prison rape does not get much support or attention from politicians, public leaders or the public at large. The federal funding penalty is a small but necessary incentive to strengthen the resolve of public officials to comply with the PREA standards.”

In Kentucky, Hardin County Detention Center guard Stephen Renfrow was arrested by the State Police in July 2017 and charged with raping a prisoner while watching her at a local hospital. Renfrow, 28, “was supervising the inmate and he gave her dipping tobacco and he engaged in sexual intercourse with the inmate in a bathroom,” stated Hardin County Jailer Danny Allen. Renfrow, who reportedly admitted to the misconduct, was charged with felony third-degree rape.

Nature of the Problem

PREA established hundreds of standards for a variety of different correctional facilities, including prisons, jails, juvenile facilities, community corrections facilities and immigration detention centers. The standards cover everything from hiring and training staff and adding security cameras to guidelines for reporting incidents to community-based rape crisis centers, investigating and evidence-gathering techniques when incidents do occur, and procedures for cross-gender strip and pat-down searches. The PREA standards also specify protocols for medical treatment and counseling for victims.

Rape and sexual abuse persist partly due to the nature of the prison system itself. The forced confinement in small spaces of large numbers of individuals of disparate ages, social backgrounds, physical and mental health, and varying amounts of self-control is difficult under the best of circumstances. Prison officials are rarely hired on the basis of their sensitivity, and the correctional culture is admittedly long on punishment and short on rehabilitation. There are few allowable sexual outlets for prisoners; only a few states allow conjugal visits, and even masturbation is considered a disciplinary offense.

Bernalillo County, New Mexico jail guard Enock Arvizo, 33, was convicted in September 2017 of raping a handcuffed female prisoner in an elevator at an Albuquerque courthouse in 2015. He had been jailed on $1 million bond, accused of victimizing five different prisoners. [See: PLN, July 2016, p.63]. In an initial trial in May 2017, Arvizo was found not guilty on one count and the jury deadlocked on a second count. He faces another trial on sexual misconduct charges.

Due to the insular nature of these closed societies, it is easy for prison officials to deny the existence of rape or sexual abuse in their institutions. “Where’s the proof?” they might ask, when they are the ones responsible for investigating and obtaining such proof when faced with allegations of sexual misconduct. Or perhaps they might agree that rape is a problem in other facilities but not theirs. It comes as no surprise that cases of sexual abuse involving prisoners often go unreported or unsubstantiated.

Ironically, much of the misconduct in correctional facilities is perpetrated by the very individuals sworn to protect prisoners, with staff members accounting for a substantial number of sexual assaults. According to the most recent report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on sexual victimization reported by prisoners, released in May 2013, around half the incidents of sexual abuse involved employees.

Kentucky state prison guard Jennifer Mitchell settled a complaint with the Executive Branch Code of Ethics in September 2017 by agreeing to pay a $1,000 penalty for having sex with a male prisoner. In exchange for having a charge of second-degree sexual abuse dismissed, Mitchell pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of second-degree official misconduct. She also agreed to never again work for the executive branch, which includes the Department of Corrections.

This may actually assist PREA in regaining some of the momentum it has lost after a promising start. The high-profile June 2015 escape of two male prisoners from an upstate New York state prison, with the assistance of a female employee who confessed to having an inappropriate relationship with one of the escapees, focused media attention on the issue of staff sexual misconduct. [See: PLN, Jan. 2017, p.26].

The employee who helped with the escape, Joyce E. Mitchell, who worked in the prison’s sewing shop, was convicted and sentenced to 28 months to seven years in prison. Denied parole on September 8, 2017, she will remain behind bars for at least another two years.

John Paul Rivers, Jr., a master detention deputy at the Al Cannon Detention Center in South Carolina, was arrested in June 2017 and charged with sexual misconduct with a female prisoner. Rivers, 38, was accused of pressing himself against the prisoner and rubbing her neck, and admitted to the inappropriate contact. He was fired shortly before being arrested, and released on $15,000 bond.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is responsible for monitoring states’ compliance with the PREA standards, and set a deadline of March 31, 2016 for Audit Year 2 of the first three-year PREA audit cycle, covering the time period from August 20, 2014 to August 19, 2015. States could either certify that they were in full compliance with the standards or provide an assurance that they were working towards compliance. As of the deadline, only 10 states had certified compliance while 38 states and the District of Columbia provided assurances.

Two states, Arkansas and Utah, declined to comply with the PREA standards completely – down from four in 2015, which included Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho and Utah. According to state officials in Arkansas, their refusal to implement the anti-rape and sexual abuse standards was due to limitations in a 1995 legal settlement in an employment discrimination case involving female prison workers.

A librarian at the SCI Retreat prison in Pennsylvania was arrested in September 2017 after she admitted to engaging in sexual misconduct with a prisoner. Karen Stroup, 44, said she was attracted to the prisoner and had sex with him in a closet at the library. She was freed on $75,000 unsecured bail and faces charges of institutional sexual assault.

States that fail to certify compliance or file an assurance that they are attempting to come into compliance forfeit 5% of federal funding provided through three criminal justice grant programs. There are no financial penalties in the PREA statute for local jails or privately-operated facilities that do not comply with the standards.

If a state is not in compliance but files an assurance, the federal grant funding is not forfeited but rather reallocated to efforts to achieve PREA compliance. (An amendment to the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, enacted on December 16, 2016, allows states filing assurances to either reallocate such funds for PREA compliance or have them held in abeyance by the DOJ.)

In a lawsuit filed on September 7, 2017, attorneys representing a female prisoner at an Arkansas state facility alleged she was sexually abused by the prison’s former chaplain. The prisoner, Carolyn Arnett, raised civil rights violations in connection with the abuse and accused Department of Correction officials of allowing it to occur for years. The chaplain, Kenneth Dewitt, convicted of sexually assaulting three prisoners, was sentenced to five years in prison in July 2016. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.63; March 2016, p.63].

The Texas Experience

Texas was initially resistant to implementing PREA despite the fact that former Governor George W. Bush supported the legislation when he served as president and signed it into law. In contrast, former Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry declined while in office to either implement PREA or issue an assurance letter, saying the anti-prison rape standards were a “burden” and “ill conceived.”

As a result of his actions, Texas lost $810,796 in federal criminal justice funding in 2014, which constituted a tiny percentage of the state’s overall corrections budget. Nonetheless, Perry’s successor as governor, Greg Abbott, filed a letter with the DOJ on May 15, 2015 that confirmed Texas would work to comply with PREA – though it came with a caveat. He said the state would implement PREA’s provisions “wherever feasible.”

A former jail deputy in Bexar County, Texas received a two-year sentence on September 12, 2017 for having sexual contact with a female prisoner. Erick Montez, 36, was found guilty at a June 2016 jury trial for having sex with the prisoner in a transport van. He faces additional charges for engaging in sex with other prisoners while employed with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. “I find that this is such an abhorrent or disgusting abuse of power that I think two years in a state jail facility is appropriate,” said Judge Lorina Rummel.

However, given the high number of sexual assaults reported in Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facilities, as well as a very low substantiation rate for allegations of rape and sexual abuse, critics argued that state prison officials should be doing everything possible to reduce incidents of sexual misconduct, not simply what is “feasible.”

The TDCJ has a very low rate of substantiated complaints, which some experts say reflects an unwillingness to properly follow-up on allegations of rape and sexual abuse. According to the New York Times, of “743 reports of sexual assault and abuse in the 2013 budget year, 20 cases, or 2.7 percent were corroborated; the national rate is 10 percent. [Only] one Texas prison rape case was sent to a grand jury that year.”

Jasquell Jamal Spell, 23, a juvenile detention guard in San Antonio, Texas, was arrested in July 2017 and charged with sexual assault of a child for having inappropriate contact with a 15-year-old female offender. The incident was caught on surveillance video. “He used his position to prey on her,” said Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar. Spell was fired and the Texas Juvenile Justice Department suspended his certification to work at juvenile facilities.

Further, in testimony before the state legislature, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reported that “In 2013, TDCJ’s PREA Ombudsman Office found that 277 incidents of nonconsensual sexual acts were reported but only 7 were substantiated (3%), 30 cases were unfounded (10%), and 240 cases were unsubstantiated (87%). Nationally, the rate of unsubstantiated cases was much lower: 55%.”

In November 2016, the Prison Justice League and Texas Association Against Sexual Assault released a joint report that found “[s]exual assaults remain a serious problem in the Texas prison system. Inmate-on-inmate and staff-on-inmate sexual assault rates in Texas prisons remain among the highest in the nation.” Almost 60% of state prisoners who reported sexual abuse said their abuser was a staff member.

On August 25, 2017, a Florida state prison guard was arrested and charged with sexual battery involving a female prisoner. The guard, identified as Trevor Hampton, reportedly had sex with the prisoner in a closet at the Miami-Dade County Women’s Detention Center. “The actions of this officer are absolutely intolerable,” said FDOC spokeswoman Michelle Glady.

The report concluded, based on survey responses from Texas prisoners, that “Despite more than a decade of federal legislative efforts and oversight by the U.S. Department of Justice – including the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) – the prevalence of sexual assault remains high in Texas prisons. Several prisons in Texas have among the highest rates of sexual victimization in the nation. Regardless of claims that PREA standards are being implemented in Texas prisons, reports from prisoners themselves indicate that sexual assaults in Texas correctional facilities remain a serious problem.”

Chris Kaiser, director of public policy at the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, noted that “[Prisoners] are already a marginalized and misunderstood population of society. And we just throw them to the wolves.”

Based on the number of TDCJ facilities with high rates of sexual abuse, the Dallas Observer once called Texas the “prison rape capital of the U.S.”

Following an investigation by the State Police, Franklin County, Pennsylvania jail guard Jennifer Diane Stanley, 41, was charged on June 14, 2017 with institutional sexual assault involving a 22-year-old male prisoner. Stanley admitted to having sexual contact with the prisoner four times and bringing him cigarettes and food. She was freed on $75,000 unsecured bail.

A June 2015 article published by Newsweek noted that from 2000 to 2014, almost 400 cases involving sexual misconduct by TDCJ employees, contractors or volunteers were referred to prosecutors. Fewer than half resulted in criminal charges. Only 126 of those prison workers were convicted of sex-related offenses, and just nine received prison or jail sentences. According to the article, “The majority of the rest [in 105 cases] received fines ranging from $200 to $4,000 and a few years on a type of probation called deferred adjudication, which results in a clean criminal record if conditions are met.”

PREA advocates, already worried about the slow pace of the federal statute’s implementation, expressed concerns about Texas’ lukewarm embrace of the PREA standards. In his 2016 assurance letter submitted to the DOJ, Governor Abbott did not include the “wherever feasible” language with respect to the state’s PREA compliance efforts – an indication that Texas is now on-board with meeting the standards.

Former Texas prison guard Jason Deon Holmes was sentenced to five years’ probation in May 2017 after pleading guilty to violating the civil rights of a person in custody. Holmes, 26, had been charged with repeatedly sexually assaulting a female prisoner at the TDCJ’s Hospital Galveston Unit in 2015.

Slow Progress, Insufficient Enforcement

The PREA statute included a timetable for implementation. The first step was for the standards to be published by 2007, following a series of studies and hearings by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. However, as noted by the New York Times, “after eight public hearings, 11 site visits and two public comment periods on draft standards, the commission did not release its final report and proposed standards until 2009,” a full six years after the law’s passage. It then took another three years for the standards to go into effect, on August 20, 2012. [See: PLN, Sept. 2013, p.1].

American University law professor Brenda V. Smith, who served as a PREA Commissioner, decried the slow progress, noting there “are a lot of carrots in PREA and not enough sticks.... Resistance was coming from and still is coming from so many correctional agencies. The resistance was: This is going to cost us too much money. But also, we were developing standards not just around preventing rape, but around respect and dignity and changing the culture that permitted or even encouraged rape in custody.”

Former Fentress County, Tennessee Sheriff Charles S. “Chucky” Cravens pleaded guilty to having sex with prisoners at his jail, and was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison in August 2017. He will also serve two years on supervised release. Cravens, 47, reportedly solicited sex from three female prisoners in exchange for special treatment – including cigarettes, food and money placed on their jail accounts. [See: PLN, Aug. 2017, p.45]. “The women ... could not consent, not in any meaningful way,” stated Assistant U.S. Attorney Katy Risinger. “They are reliant on defendant for their safety, their food, their clothing.... Their well-being.”

There was no question that PREA required an attitudinal shift for many corrections officials, particularly long-term career employees who sometimes considered rape to be part of the “punishment” inherent in incarceration. PREA not only drew a line as to the unacceptability of prison sexual abuse, it also included limitations on cross-gender strip searches, pat-downs and bathroom supervision by staff members – fairly radical concepts. To assist with achieving PREA compliance, the DOJ has paid out over $60 million in grants to state, local and tribal governments since 2004, plus millions more in additional funding for the National PREA Resource Center.

The resource center has been instrumental in educating wardens and other corrections officials, providing anti-rape materials for posting in prisons and jails, establishing sexual abuse PREA hotlines, creating educational videos for prisoners and holding training sessions for staff members. Many credit these programs and services with helping to significantly reduce reports of sexual abuse. PREA also provides funding for auditors to perform correctional facility audits.

In July 2017, Wyoming state prison guard Cindy George, 48, pleaded guilty to having a sexual relationship with a prisoner; she faces up to three years of probation and 10 years on the state’s sex offender registry pursuant to her plea agreement. She reportedly had sex multiple times with a prisoner at the Wyoming Honor Farm, which resulted in second-degree sexual assault charges.

Opinions vary as to whether PREA implementation is proceeding at a rapid-enough pace to make a significant difference in curtailing incidents of rape and sexual abuse among prisoners. Former PREA Commissioner John A. Kaneb said in 2015 that he thought “things are going well now.” He noted at the time that 500 PREA auditors had been certified, which should increase the number of audits being conducted.

Others are disappointed at the slow progress. One of the sore points is how long the DOJ will continue to accept “assurances” from states that are not in compliance with the PREA standards. Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International (JDI, formerly known as Stop Prisoner Rape), is among those concerned.

“This [practice] leaves open the absurd possibility that a state could kick the can down the road in perpetuity without ever incurring a financial penalty,” she stated.

Catherine Button, 27, a case manager at Intervention Community Corrections Services in Greeley, Colorado, was arrested in July 2017 for engaging in sexual misconduct with a prisoner at the facility and giving him food. She denied the allegations, though she and the prisoner spoke on the phone after she was arrested, calling each other “babe” and saying, “I love you.”

That shortcoming was only recently addressed in an amendment to the Justice for All Reauthorization Act, signed into law in December 2016. The amendment provides a six-year sunset provision for PREA assurances, after which time all states are expected to be in compliance with the standards. However, states can request “emergency assurances” for another two years after the deadline, and there are no additional penalties for states that remain non-compliant following the sunset date for assurances.

Another concerned advocate is Pat Nolan, director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation and a former PREA Commissioner. He slammed former Texas Governor Rick Perry’s criticism of the PREA standards, stating, “The fear is that if you get enough states thumbing their nose at this, the whole thing could unravel.”

A civilian employee at the Franklin County jail in Ohio was indicted on July 24, 2017 for sexual battery on a prisoner. Kyle A. Kelley, 22, a former corrections services coordinator, was charged with having sex with a female prisoner. “All jail employees have a duty to protect inmates in their custody rather than prey on them,” said prosecutor Ron O’Brien, “and here a former employee who didn’t understand that now faces up to 5 years in prison.”

PREA’s failure to limit the number of assurances a state could provide to the DOJ without becoming fully compliant – until the six-year sunset provision was recently adopted – was one of the statute’s major weaknesses. Others, as described by Prison Legal News in its comments submitted to the PREA Commission and the DOJ while the standards were being formulated, include no private cause of action for prisoners to sue over PREA violations, relying on self-reported sexual abuse data from correctional agencies with no external oversight, and a conflict of interest with respect to the DOJ monitoring PREA compliance.

Additionally, the financial penalties imposed for non-compliance with the PREA standards are grossly insufficient. Currently, states face the loss of 5% in funding from federal JAG, JJDPA and STOP grants; if they file assurance letters with the DOJ, those funds are not lost but can be reallocated to PREA compliance efforts. As indicated by the chart that accompanies this article, in fiscal year 2016 only 10 states reported they were in full compliance, while 38 states and the District of Columbia filed assurances and two states (Arkansas and Utah) declined to comply with PREA.

Jeffrey Green, 48, a former prison guard at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, was sentenced to nine months in federal prison on August 15, 2017 after he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a female prisoner. Green was accused of opening the victim’s cell and sexually assaulting her. He will have to serve one year on supervised release after completing his prison term.

The jurisdictions not in compliance had a combined $10 million in reallocations or reductions in their federal criminal justice funding. However, that amount was out of combined corrections budgets of more than $42.8 billion (excluding budgets for the 10 states that reported compliance).

Thus, the penalties for states that failed to comply with the PREA standards represented, on average, around .0351 percent of their corrections budgets – or less than 1/20th of one percent. The loss – or most often the mere reallocation – of such meager funds provides little incentive for states that file assurances to move towards full PREA compliance; in fact, the cost of compliance typically exceeds the financial penalties imposed. Consequently, PREA’s sole enforcement provision is a dismal failure.

A former Rikers Island jail guard in New York City, Jose Cosme, 36, pleaded guilty to a criminal sex act on June 8, 2017; in exchange for his plea, he was sentenced to ten years of probation and required to register as a sex offender. Cosme was charged with sexually assaulting prisoner Jacqueline Healy in a closet at the jail concealed from security cameras. Healy mailed some of her clothing that contained Cosme’s DNA to a friend and relative. “We will prosecute any jail employee who undermines the public’s trust and tarnishes the honest, hardworking employees of the Department of Correction,” said District Attorney Darcel Clark.

Few PREA Audits, Many Incidents

More than 13,000 prisons, jails, juvenile facilities, lockups and other detention facilities nationwide are subject to PREA standards, and thus far only a relatively small number have been audited. As of September 15, 2016, the National PREA Resource Center reported that less than 2,000 audits had been conducted.

According to the DOJ it takes up to nine months for audits to be completed, with the length of time generally determined by the size of the facility. Auditors allow 180 days for corrective action on an interim audit, and another 30 days to finish and make public the final audit report.

In September 2017, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced the arrest of deputy Giancarlo Scotti on charges of sexual misconduct involving prisoners at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood. Scotti, 31, who had been employed by the LASD for ten years, was arrested based on “compelling evidence”; he faces two counts of rape and two counts of oral copulation under color of authority. He posted $100,000 bail and was placed on administrative leave. “It’s disgusting to all of us, to anyone who wears a badge,” said Sheriff McDonnell. At the time of Scotti’s arrest, no Los Angeles County jail facility had undergone a PREA audit, according to Karen Dalton, the PREA coordinator for the LASD.

There were approximately 770 certified PREA auditors as of October 2017, although the quality of their work has sometimes faced criticism.

“The problem is with the auditors themselves. A handful dominate the market, offering cheap audits and quick assessments of facilities,” said Stannow. “This results in auditors who do little advance research, relying only on documents provided by the agency.”

Georgia state prison guard Joe Willen Durham, 43, was charged with sexual assault against a person in custody, sodomy and violation of oath by a public officer, and booked into the Butts County jail on June 20, 2017. He is accused of having sexual contact with a prisoner at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in 2016.

Tom Talbot, a senior Department of Justice policy adviser with the Bureau of Justice Assistance who oversees the PREA Management Office, said the DOJ continues to work with PREA auditors to make their reports more accurate and accessible.

“We are just at the beginning of a complex, lengthy, multi-year process to address a really important human rights issue,” he said in 2015. “Sexual abuse is never a laughing matter, nor is it punishment for a crime. Rather, it is a crime, and it is no more tolerable when its victims have committed crimes of their own.... I want to emphasize that significant progress is being made to address this human rights issue.”

According to an August 11, 2017 report by the Associated Press, Clarke County, Oregon jail guard Christopher A. North, 29, was charged with second-degree custodial sexual misconduct and indecent liberties with forcible compulsion. Prosecutors have filed aggravating factors, seeking an enhanced sentence if North is convicted for engaging in sexual misconduct with a female prisoner. Accused of exposing himself and ejaculating on his victim, he was released on $50,000 bond.

Weighed against those observations is the staggering number of prisoners who have reported sexual abuse by both staff members and other prisoners. According to data from the last BJS surveys, from 2011-2012, an estimated 80,600 adult prisoners (4% of those held in prisons and 3.2% in jails), as well as 1,720 juvenile offenders (9.5% of juvenile facility populations) reported some form of sexual abuse.

Statistically, LGBT prisoners and those who are mentally ill are at greater risk of victimization. Previous estimates put the total number of sexual abuse incidents involving prisoners as high as 216,000; the BJS has not issued a more recent report.

On August 29, 2017, a case manager at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Heather Fox, was arrested on a charge of felony sexual misconduct. She was placed on suspension and booked into the LaPorte County Jail. “The Indiana Department of Correction is committed to zero tolerance for all forms of sexual activity and we will continue to refer cases for prosecution,” said Warden Ron Neal.

As stated by The Marshall Project, an independent criminal justice news agency, “After more than a decade of bureaucratic lethargy, rape elimination is not in sight.”

Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, also was displeased by the slow pace of reforms, as well as by Senator Cornyn’s 2014 amendment to water down PREA’s enforcement provision.

“It caught us all by surprise,” he said. “The effect of this amendment absolutely guts the enforcement, but I actually don’t think that was the intent,” and the push to seek the measure had probably come from law enforcement groups wary of losing funds for programs they felt should not be linked to prison policies on rape. Still, said Daley, “We had never done this before, and the fact of the matter is, there will be mistakes. None of which is reassuring for someone who is currently incarcerated, of course.”

Former Kenosha County, Wisconsin jailer Jonathan Kwiatkowski, 30, charged with sexual assault and misconduct in public office, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in October 2017 to six years in prison. He had sexual contact with female prisoners because, as stated by Assistant District Attorney Carli McNeill, “these are women who are least likely to be believed when they make these accusations.”

Staff Sexual Abuse

All 50 states have criminalized sexual contact between prisoners and corrections staff; due to the inherent power imbalance between the keepers and the kept, prisoners are deemed unable to voluntarily consent to intimate acts or relationships, even if they willingly engage in sexual conduct.

The escape of two New York prisoners from the Clinton Correctional Facility in June 2015, facilitated by prison employee Joyce Mitchell’s relationship with one of the escapees, brought publicity and attention to the fact that one of the primary and most insidious sources of prisoner sexual abuse involves staff members.

A deputy sheriff at the St. Louis Justice Center in Missouri was arrested in April 2017 after groping a female prisoner he had transported to the jail for a non-existent court date so he could get her alone in a private cell. Christopher Lee Jones, 50, was charged with felony sexual contact after inappropriately touching prisoner Toni Demyers. He was suspended without pay. Demyers filed suit against the county in July 2017. St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts said he was trying to reform “the culture and operations of the department.”

When the news media covers these occurrences it is typically less interested in investigating the prevalence of sexual misconduct by prison and jail employees, which is often unreported and, even if reported, can be difficult to substantiate. Without the bright light of outside publicity to illuminate such incidents, though, prisoners become even more vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Thus, prisoners, former prisoners and their advocates are increasingly addressing the issue of rape and sexual assaults involving staff members.

In North Carolina, a Gates County jail deputy was charged with sexual contact by a custodian, obstruction of justice and first-degree sex offense in May 2017. Deputy Patrick Batts reported that a female prisoner had escaped while he was transporting her to another facility; in fact, he let her out of his vehicle after having sex with her. Batts was jailed on a $150,000 bond.

On October 15, 2017, protesters gathered at the Lackawanna County Prison in Scranton, Pennsylvania to draw attention to the sexual abuse of female prisoners. Four women have filed a federal lawsuit alleging they were raped by multiple guards while held at the facility; nine guards were reportedly placed on paid administrative leave, though five have since returned to work.

According to the Times-Tribune, “In their lawsuit, the women allege the guards coerced them into sex acts by giving them extra privileges or threatening to take away privileges while they were incarcerated. When the women were free, the guards threatened to have their probation revoked if they did not comply with their demands for sex.”

Former Fulton County, Georgia jail nurse Aleah Risby, 23, was released on a $7,500 signature bond in July 2017 following her arrest for having sexual contact with a prisoner. Risby, employed by private medical contractor Correct Care Solutions, is accused of having sex with prisoner Jerrell Hopkins and sending him intimate letters.

The protestors carried signs that said “Stop hiding rape” and “LCP abuses prisoners.” A month before the protest, officials from the State Police and state Attorney General’s Office served a search warrant at the Lackawanna County Prison and a work release center in connection with an investigation into sexual abuse, and carted off boxes of evidence.

Piper Kerrnan, a former federal prisoner who served time at FCI Danbury for aiding in money laundering and drug trafficking, is the creative force behind the hit Netflix program “Orange is the New Black.” The show has aired several episodes based on the dilemmas faced by female prisoners who experience sexual abuse. In one, a guard rapes a prisoner in a transport van, but if she reports the incident it’s merely her word against that of her rapist. She will likely not be believed, and may be subject to retaliation – a stint in solitary, a transfer to another, perhaps harsher, facility and more abuse or even worse.

On June 23, 2017, a former lieutenant at the Jessamine County jail in Kentucky, Jaime Sisson, 47, was indicted on felony counts of third-degree sodomy and third-degree rape for having sex with a prisoner. Sisson had been employed at the jail for 10 years, and was fired in April 2017 following an internal investigation. “When an accusation is made against one of my deputies, I will always have the allegation investigated, and if we find evidence to substantiate those allegations, we will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law,” said Jailer Jon Sallee.

The rising number of women prisoners who experience sexual abuse is due, in part, to a major increase in the female prison population over the past ten years, a trend that has strained correctional facilities’ ability to properly house, supervise and protect them. In some cases this has led to egregious sexual abuse and harassment by prison staff – with one of the worst examples occurring in Michigan.

After investigating one Michigan prison, the DOJ discovered that “nearly every woman ... [prisoner] reported various sexually aggressive acts of guards,” consisting not only of rape but also aggressive pat-downs, assaults and voyeurism. The state was sued for “violating the constitutional rights of inmates incarcerated in Michigan’s women’s prisons to be free from sexual misconduct and unlawful invasions of privacy.”

A transgender state prisoner in Arizona, Kaitlynn Marie, filed suit in federal court on May 26, 2017, claiming a former guard at the ASP Lewis complex had sexually abused her. The guard, Juan Ignacio Ramirez, Jr., pleaded guilty to attempted unlawful sexual contact in November 2016 and received 10 years of probation. His attorney said the incident was consensual, contrary to claims in the lawsuit.

The state settled the class-action lawsuit in 2009, agreeing to implement policy changes and pay $100 million in damages and attorney fees – which reflected the enormous scope of the problem. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.30].

More recently, in February 2016, a class-action suit filed in federal court sought to protect women in New York prisons from sexual abuse; the complaint argued the state’s zero tolerance policy for sexual misconduct was a sham. Brought by the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project and the law firm of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, the suit alleged the prison system’s reporting and investigation of sexual abuse complaints by prisoners was “grossly inadequate,” and corrections officials were “functionally indifferent to the risk of sexual abuse for women prisoners, allowing staff sexual abuse and harassment to persist and flourish.”

Ruben Illa, 34, a former prison guard at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, pleaded guilty on September 19, 2017 to writing a false report to cover up his illicit relationship with a female prisoner. Illa filed a disciplinary charge against the prisoner, Yekatrina Pusepa, for being “out of place” after he had summoned her to a medical unit so they could see each other. He will be sentenced in December 2017. Pusepa later filed suit, claiming she was used as “bait” by prison officials to catch Illa, then placed in solitary and subjected to retaliation when she refused to cooperate.

The litigation remains pending, and the parties agreed to a two-year stay in June 2017 while state prison officials implement a series of reforms intended to prevent and reduce sexual misconduct. See: Jones v. Annucci, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:16-cv-01473-RA.

Of course male prisoners are subject to rape and sexual assault too, including by female corrections staff. In fact, since around 90% of all prisoners are male, more male prisoners are sexually abused by female employees than women prisoners are victimized by male staff – particularly among juvenile offenders. The rate of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse is significantly higher at women’s facilities, though, according to BJS data.

A June 26, 2017 news article reported that Moore County, Tennessee jailer Shane Hopkins, 29, had been charged with 25 counts related to official misconduct and engaging in sexual contact with a female prisoner. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said the sex acts occurred between January and May 2017. Hopkins was booked into jail with a $50,000 bond.

Continued Problems ... and Hope

Unfortunately, even some prison officials charged with implementing PREA standards at their facilities are not fully engaged with the reform efforts they are supposed to be overseeing. Some are even involved in misconduct themselves.

According to 2015 news reports, William Ruhlman, the PREA coordinator at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Michigan where juvenile prisoners are confined, posted a photo on his Facebook page of a large black prisoner with his hand on the shoulder of a smaller white prisoner, the face of Justin Bieber superimposed over the smaller prisoner’s face. The caption on the photo was “Beliebe me ... I’ll be gentle.”

Montgomery County, Maryland jail guard Olukunle A. Oyekanmi, 41, was fired in July 2017 after being charged with forcing a prisoner to perform oral sex on him. The male prisoner, who identifies as female, kept a pair of pants that contained Oyekanmi’s DNA, which led to his arrest. He was charged with sexual assault and malfeasance in office, and released on $20,000 bond.

Prof. Brenda Smith, the former PREA Commissioner, commented: “It would suggest to me that he [Ruhlman] is not the person you want in that position. A lot of what we are talking about is respect for boundaries.”

Ruhlman later moved to another job position, but during his tenure as PREA coordinator, juvenile offenders filed a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections claiming that prison officials had failed to protect them from sexual assaults. In a separate suit, Ruhlman was accused of texting a picture of his genitals to a fellow prison employee.

Former Maui Community Correctional Center guard James Siugpiyemal, 44, was convicted on July 14, 2017 of second-degree and third-degree sexual assault. The Hawaii jailer was charged with sexually assaulting a 36-year-old female prisoner in 2014 after threatening to have her work furlough privileges removed. [See: PLN, April 2017, p.63; July 2015, p.63]. The prisoner recorded a video of one of the sexual assaults, which was played at trial. “He, as an officer, abused his authority,” said Deputy Prosecutor Iwalani Gasmen. “He used his leverage, basically, to solicit sex.” 

Also, according to a May 25, 2017 DOJ press release, three employees at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York – one guard and two lieutenants – were indicted for sexually abusing at least six female prisoners. Lt. Carlos Richard Martinez, 47, Lt. Eugenio Perez, 46, and guard Armando Moronta, 39, were arrested on charges of deprivation of civil rights under color of law, aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse of a ward, attempted sexual abuse of a ward and abusive sexual contact.

The press release said Martinez had used “physical force and fear to repeatedly rape a sentenced female prisoner at the MDC. Martinez forced himself on his victim almost every weekend for a period of approximately two months, often multiple times per weekend, exploiting her fear of being sent to the Special Housing Unit and facing additional jail time to ensure her silence.”

Jennifer M. Stehling, a nurse at the Fox Lake Correctional Institution in Wisconsin, was sentenced to 30 months of probation and seven months in jail in June 2017; she also must register as a sex offender. The charges stemmed from Stehling having sex with a prisoner in the facility’s health services unit; an investigation that led to her prosecution began after prison staff noted a prisoner had tried to call her hundreds of times. A search of the prisoner’s cell revealed photos of Stehling and a calendar with notations on the days when she worked at the prison.

Perez and Martinez were reportedly members of a team of employees charged with teaching other corrections staff about PREA standards, and the MDC had previously passed two PREA audits. JDI director Lovisa Stannow addressed this disturbing issue in an August 9, 2017 editorial published in the Washington Post titled, “We have standards to stop prison rape. Why were rapists allowed to enforce them?”

At the core of incidents involving sexual abuse by corrections staff is a belief by the perpetrators that their positions and authority entitle them to break the law, sexually exploit prisoners and endanger the security of their correctional facilities. In addition to the numerous examples of staff sexual abuse interspersed throughout this article, many others are quietly resolved without criminal charges or even discipline.

In Douglas County, Georgia, jail guard Carmel Biggers, Jr. was accused in July 2017 of sexually abusing three female prisoners. “This type of conduct by any person associated with Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is completely unacceptable and is an embarrassment to the department as well as the many exceptional men and woman that proudly wear this badge,” stated Sheriff Tim Pounds. Prior to his employment at the jail, Biggers had worked as a state prison guard for 18 years.

A BJS report released in January 2014 found that less than half (46.3%) of prison and jail employees who engaged in sexual misconduct were referred for prosecution, and only 1% were convicted. Almost half (42.6%) resigned rather than being fired. And those were just the ones who were caught. Regardless, continued incidents of rape and sexual abuse by staff members have served to illustrate the ongoing nature of the problem and the need for solutions.

“Fortunately, much of the early cynicism around the PREA standards has faded away,” Stannow said in a statement. “Elected representatives and corrections professionals are realizing that the standards make a lot of sense.”

At the privately-operated Cimarron Correctional Facility in Cushing, Oklahoma, two former guards were charged with felonies in separate cases involving sexual misconduct with prisoners. Both Terry Lyn Sneed, 54, charged with forcible oral sodomy, and Lisa Marie Shannon, 36, charged with second-degree rape, were released on $20,000 bond after they were arrested in June 2017. Shannon admitted she became pregnant and gave birth as a result of having sex with a prisoner. The facility is operated by CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.

On October 16, 2017, fourteen U.S. Senators sent a joint letter to the Senate Committee on Appropriations and a related subcommittee, requesting restoration of funding for PREA-related expenses during fiscal year 2018. The funds would be used “for implementation grants to help states to come into compliance” with PREA standards, for the National PREA Resource Center, and for “surveys of sexual assault and victimization in prisons, jails and other confinement facilities across the country.”

Senator John Cornyn was one of the signatories to the letter – a gesture of contrition, perhaps, for his prior attempt to weaken PREA’s enforcement provision.

Castulo Matos, 48, a former Atlantic County, New Jersey jail guard, pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual contact and was sentenced to five years of probation in July 2017. He admitted to having sexual contact with a female prisoner, who reported him to investigators.

Most recently, as of Audit Year 3 of the PREA audit cycle for fiscal year 2017, nineteen states reported they were in compliance with PREA standards while 29 and the District of Columbia filed assurances with the DOJ. State officials in Utah and Arkansas continue to refuse to comply.

“One has to wonder what these governors presume to know about stopping prisoner rape, or what magic bullet they think they possess, that has so far eluded the rest of the country,” Stannow remarked in a July 2016 press release.

In June 2017, a Maine state prisoner filed a federal lawsuit against a guard she accused of sexually abusing her. The complaint alleged that guard Joshua Dall-Leighton had sexual contact when transporting the female prisoner to a work release program. Dall-Leighton was indicted in November 2016 following an investigation by prison officials; his attorney, Neal Weinstein, called the suit a “scam,” saying prisoners would “do anything to get a better deal in jail or to get out sooner.”

Based on the increasing number of states that have taken steps towards full compliance with the PREA standards, hope remains that the statute will eventually live up to its name and professed intent: To eliminate prison rape and sexual abuse. Sadly, however, even if all detention facilities fully embrace PREA, the standards alone and the penalties for non-compliance are woefully inadequate to achieve that goal. 

Sources:, Associated Press,,,, The New York Times, The Crime Report, Correctional News, Just Detention International,,, The Oakland Press,,,, The Oregonian,,,,,,, The Denver Post,,,,,,,,,,,, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald,,,,,,,,,, Washington Times,,,,,,,, New York Daily News,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,


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