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$150,000 Settles Colorado Jail Prisoner’s Sexual Assault Suit

by Matt Clarke

In January 2017, Otero County, Colorado paid $150,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a jail prisoner who was sexually assaulted by a former guard.

Jennifer Hernandez, a mother of two, was booked into the Otero County Jail as a pretrial detainee.

“It’s a little backwater jail where they have all kinds of issues and problems,” said Denver attorney David A. Lane, who represented Hernandez. “They’ve got virtually no privacy for any inmates. They put all the female inmates into one big cell, and it’s an old-fashioned jail, where they have bars defining the cells. They don’t have steel doors for privacy, so whenever someone uses the bathroom, anyone can see it. You’re constantly having male guards seeing female inmates naked and female guards seeing naked male inmates.”

Other prisoners told Hernandez about Deputy Dominic Torres, a night-shift guard who was “flirty” and tried to “sexualize every encounter.” The night shift was manned by a single guard who was responsible for monitoring the female prisoners; he observed them disrobing and watched them shower.

Soon, Torres approached Hernandez to solicit sexual favors. She repeatedly rebuffed him, but the sexual harassment continued. He took her cell phone from the property office and showed nude photos of her stored on the phone to male prisoners. Eventually, while she was under the influence of a prescription sleep medication, he reached through the bars, under her pants and inserted his finger into her vagina. Another prisoner awakened her during the sexual assault.

Torres told Hernandez he would plant contraband in her cell to set her up if she told anyone. Undaunted, she reported the guard’s behavior; the sheriff waited three days before asking the La Junta Police Department to investigate.

In the two days following the sexual assault, Torres gave another prisoner a bag of coffee and a lighter in exchange for sex and refused to bring a prisoner her pain medication because she refused to have sex with him. He was fired and later pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual conduct in a correctional institution. Four other charges were dismissed. Torres was sentenced in March 2015 to 30 days in jail, four years’ probation and 150 hours of community service, and must also register as a sex offender.

After Hernandez reported the sexual assault, Deputies Linda Hughes, Michael Mora and Carol Oates retaliated by taking her property, including her notes on what Torres had done, and refused to intervene when she was attacked by a cellmate.

Hernandez filed a federal civil rights suit against Sheriff Chris Johnson, Torres, Hughes, Mora and Oates, alleging retaliation and violations of her due process and privacy rights in violation of the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The defendants agreed to settle for $150,000 in January 2017.

“I’m still mentally dealing with what happened, it’s still there in the back of my head, and it’s caused a lot of problems and trust issues with me about police,” Hernandez said. “I don’t feel I could call a male officer if I’m in danger, because I won’t feel safe.”

She added, “I think it’s time for me to sit down and explain certain things to my children. I shouldn’t have to. But I do feel that Otero County should be held responsible for what happened, and hopefully this will send a message. The settlement is just a dent, but maybe by me stepping forward, other girls won’t stay quiet if something like this happens to them.” See: Hernandez v. Johnson, U.S.D.C. (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:16-cv-01036-RBJ. 

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Related legal case

Hernandez v. Johnson