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$11.5 Million Awarded in Suits Over Wisconsin Jailer’s Sexual Assaults

by Matt Clarke

On February 3, 2017, a jury in Madison, Wisconsin awarded two women $11.5 million in the first two of five federal lawsuits brought by former Polk County jail prisoners who were sexually abused by former guard Darryl Christensen. The awards came a year after Christensen, then-49, was sentenced to 30 years for the sexual assaults.

Christensen was a Polk County jailer and the Amery Fire Chief when five women who were incarcerated at the jail accused him of sexually assaulting them between 2012 and 2014. Their claims included allegations that he sexually abused one prisoner who was in chains and shackles and another at the Amery Fire Hall. Christensen pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting all five women with the agreement that the prosecutor would recommend an 8½-year sentence.

The prosecutor made the recommendation but it was rejected by state court Judge Eugene Harrington, who called it “unduly depreciated” and noted that Christensen had minimized the seriousness of his crimes and engaged in “victim blaming” by calling one of the women “raunchy.” Harrington said he did not believe Christensen was truly remorseful and sentenced him to three decades in prison followed by 30 years of extended supervision.

The five victims filed separate federal civil rights suits against Christensen and Polk County. In the first two cases to go to trial, Sheriff Pete Johnson’s testimony revealed that he had not given jail staff or prisoners the sexual assault awareness training required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), or even posted the PREA posters provided by the state Department of Corrections. His attitude was lackadaisical even after sexual misconduct allegations were made against Christensen.

That, and the lack of effective responses to previous allegations of sexual harassment by jailers, allowed a “reasonable inference that the County failed to take the threat of sexual harassment and assault by correctional officers seriously,” according to U.S. District Court Judge William M. Comley, who noted there was “deliberate indifference” by the jail administration in regard to investigating complaints of sexual harassment and assault.

The jury award of $11.5 million was divided. Two million for each plaintiff was awarded against both Polk County and Christensen while the remainder was awarded against Christensen only, which will likely never be collected as the Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Corporation (WCMIC) determined it was not required to indemnify him personally. Polk County will have to pay the $4 million, but part of the award may be paid by WCMIC.

WCMIC has since appealed to the Seventh Circuit. The three other cases filed by prisoners who were sexually abused by Christensen remain pending in federal district court, and have been stayed pending the outcome of the appeal in the first two cases that went to trial. See: M.J.J. v. Polk County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wisc.), Case No. 3:15-cv-00433-wmc and J.K.J. v. Polk County, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Wisc.), Case No. 3:15-cv-00428-wmc. 

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Related legal case

J.K.J. v. Polk County