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Former Oregon Prison Nurse Gets 30 Years for Raping Prisoners

by Mark Wilson

Five years after Oregon prison officials and state prosecutors abandoned them, a group of state prisoners sexually assaulted by a prison nurse finally secured a measure of justice from federal prosecutors. On October 17, 2023, the federal court for the District of Oregon handed a 30-year federal prison sentence to Tony Daniel Klein.

Following a 10-day trial, a federal jury returned its verdict on July 25, 2023, convicting Klein, 38, of 21 federal crimes for sexually assaulting nine prisoners in 2016 and 2017 and then lying about it during sworn deposition testimony in 2019. Sadly, one of the nine committed suicide after Klein’s assault. Another 18 known victims—and countless others silently suffering in fear or shame—will never see anything like “justice” from the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) or state prosecutors.

“His heinous actions were only brought to light by a small group of courageous women who came forward, even despite their precarious circumstances of being incarcerated,” said Kieran Ramsey, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI field office in Portland. “Their willingness to report their victimization undoubtedly saved others from Mr. Klein’s predatory actions.”

In contrast, the profound indifference of state prison officials, local prosecutors and law enforcement placed all of Oregon’s estimated 870 female prisoners at high risk of sexual assault by Klein and other predatory prison employees.

“It wasn’t just Tony,” said victim Lisa Whipple. “He is the ultimate predator and person in this situation. But the [DOC], there’s a whole bunch of things they could’ve done … to make sure that this type of victimizing does not happen within these walls.”

She’s not the only one who feels that way. “Why did he have a chance to get to me?” asked victim Connie Wilson. “That shouldn’t happen. They were supposed to protect me and they didn’t. They failed miserably.”

As PLN has reported, “failed miserably” is an epic understatement. Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF), Oregon’s only women’s prison, has been plagued by one sex abuse scandal after another since it opened in 2001. [See: PLN Jan. 2022, p.46.] Each time, prison officials who claim “zero tolerance” for staff sexual abuse fail to stop it.

Following a 2004 sex scandal, Oregon lawmakers created the crime of Custodial Sexual Misconduct (CSM), recognizing for the first time that prisoners are legally incapable of consenting to sexual contact with prison staff due to the extreme power differential between them. The felony offense of CSM 1 covers what would commonly be classified as sexual abuse outside of custodial settings, including rape or sodomy, while the misdemeanor offense of CSM 2 covers sexual harassment. But having laws on the books does nothing to protect victims when prison officials and local prosecutors refuse to use it or punish women for the abuse they suffer.

“He Made Us Feel Like
We Were Human”

Klein began working at CCCF in 2010. There “he used his position of authority to prey on women in custody who were in a uniquely vulnerable position,” noted U.S. Attorney Natalie Wight. “He further led his victims to believe they had no power to resist or report his abuse.”

He used kindness as a weapon. “He was goofy looking, but he was kind enough to make us comfortable, to make us feel like we’re human, to talk to us one-on-one and you know, BS and kid around,” Wilson recalled. “He kind of talked to us like we were regular people, because the rest of them—a lot of the [guards] and staff—would treat us like we were scum. He was kind.” It was only much too late when it dawned on her that Klein’s kindness was merely a ruse to get in her pants.

Wilson’s father died in summer 2017, while she was locked up and unable to see him. She took it hard. Klein was sympathetic, and she trusted him when she was unexpectedly scheduled for an X-Ray on July 10, 2017. She told guards it must be a mistake because she never made the appointment, but they told her she’d have to cancel it in person.

When Wilson arrived at the prison infirmary, “Nurse Tony,” as she knew him, called to her from inside an examination room. He asked if she had an existing problem with her knee or hip. Wilson said she did, so Klein urged her to keep the appointment and began an examination, not the scheduled X-Ray. He asked her to pull her pants up over her knee so he could evaluate her. But her jeans were too tight, so Klein told her to pull them down. He then sexually assaulted her, touching her between the legs.

It wasn’t the only time he became predatory. Klein sexually assaulted many others who came to the infirmary for medical treatment or worked there. “He told me I looked like I would be fun, implying that it would be fun to have sex with me,” said Whipple, who was regularly being seen for a heart condition.

She recalled that Klein kissed her during an exam. “He started, like blowing in my ear and then kind of doing the kisses down the neck,” she said. “He grabbed my hand and put my hand on his erect penis.” The appointment ended abruptly when another nurse walked into the room, Whipple claimed.

Prison Officials and State Prosecutors Disbelieve Victims

Oregon State Police (OSP) began investigating Klein on November 16, 2017, after a call from an official at CCCF. Over the next four months, detectives interviewed 11 prisoners. One told them that Klein tried to kiss her and later “came up behind her” in an infirmary closet, “pulled her pants down and performed oral sex on her.”

During a medical appointment reported by another prisoner, “Klein moved her hand, touching his penis through his pants and asked her what she knew about it,” investigators noted. Yet another prisoner reported that Klein cupped her breast under her bra while he listened through a stethoscope. He forced his penis against another prisoner’s mouth while she was recovering from surgery, OSP detectives wrote. Still another prisoner reported that Klein called her to the infirmary and groped her in an examination room when she was recovering from a respiratory infection in January 2017—only to assault her again five months later.

A prisoner identified as “S” told investigators that Klein sexually assaulted her during medical appointments for cancer treatment begun in August 2017, when Klein “took her to a ‘side room’ where they talked and flirted,” OSP detectives reported. “She said they built rapport overtime,” they added, and that Klein said, “you’re still beautiful with one boob.” Though he groped her, she ‘‘told us that she didn’t make him stop,” detectives wrote. “She told us that Klein pulled out his ‘hard’ penis and said, ‘what are we going to do about this?’ She told us that she laughed it off.”

During a second appointment about one month later, “S” needed an injection in her abdomen. Klein “put his fingers in her vagina” while she lay on an exam table, she told detectives. After giving her the injection, “Klein bent her over the table and pulled the back of her shorts down” to have sex with her. But she told investigators that “she never felt that Klein ‘raped’ her and she didn’t try to make him stop.”

A Nurse Manager reviewed the prisoner’s medical files, confirming that she saw Klein for cancer treatment in August 2017 and an injection in September 2017. Investigators then concluded by noting that “S” said “she felt ‘flattered’ first by Klein and now ‘manipulated.’”

A few other prisoners told detectives that Klein was being set up by women making up sexual assault allegations so they could receive financial settlements from the state. Investigators could not substantiate those claims, however, finding instead “it was all rumors.” Many prisoners said that Klein made them feel special before assaulting them. Some even insisted the sexual contact was mutual and refused to call it rape.

Wilson sees it differently. She said that prison is a place without humanity, without laughter, and in an environment so deprived, Klein stood out as someone who seemed to care. Thus, she believes the prison culture made her assault possible.

As part of their investigation, OSP detectives obtained a search warrant to collect a DNA sample from Klein. However, the state crime lab was unable to find his DNA on a pair of underwear that one accuser said she wore when he penetrated her during a medical appointment. Nevertheless, feeling the heat of the investigation, Klein resigned from DOC on January 31, 2018. Portland-based Legacy Health later hired Klein, apparently unaware of the allegations against him.

OSP detectives turned the case file over to the Washington County District Attorney’s Office on March 2, 2018. Deputy District Attorney (DA) Rayney Meisel reviewed the file but refused to submit the case to a grand jury. “We will not proceed with charges at this time,” Meisel wrote in a memo on August 27, 2018, declaring: “When taken as a whole, the allegations are unsupportable.”

“While it may be true that some of these inmates did, in fact, engage in sexual activity with the Defendant,” she said, “the information we have is too unreliable to present to a jury.”

Meisel, who Chief Deputy DA Jeff Lesowski calls “an experienced sex crimes prosecutor,” apparently didn’t understand or care that any sexual contact between staff and a prisoner is a crime under Oregon law. Despite being dismissed by detectives as “all rumors,” Meisel also said “it appears that there would be a great deal of evidence to support the defense that these allegations were false attempts at extorting money from [DOC].”

That memo closed the case for the DA’s Office. But it was written without benefit of interviews with eight more victims, which OSP detectives conducted between April 5 and August 22, 2018. Those prisoners made reports like the 11 that were given to prosecutors five months earlier. But OSP detectives did not immediately send them to prosecutors.

In fact, it wasn’t until January 4, 2019, that Lindsay Noack, an investigator with DOC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), sent an email asking OSP detectives to send the latest ‘Tony Klein report.’ Responded Detective Jace Hall: “I was going through my case folder this week and realized I never typed up the inmate [redacted] interview. Sorry for the delay.”

Detectives then sent the original case file and supplemental reports to both Noack and the Washington County DA’s Office on January 9, 2019. “When you have the kind of information where it might change the case … you repackage the whole case and send it back down to the district attorney’s office,” explained OSP spokesperson Cpt. Stephanie Bigman. “And that happens all the time.”

Noack received the reports on January 14, 2019. The DA’s office claimed it never received them. “Unfortunately, those additional OSP reports were never delivered to the DA’s Office and we were not made aware of their existence,” said former spokesperson Stephen Mayer. “If we had received additional reports, we would have re-evaluated our 2018 charging decision to determine whether criminal charges could be filed.” But still they never did.

Meanwhile, the Oregon Board of Nursing also opened an investigation into the sexual assault allegations, finding that Klein lied about being under investigation by OSP. The Board sent its investigation results to the DA’s Office in September 2018, before moving to revoke Klein’s license in June 2019. But when prosecutors took no further action, the Board cited that refusal in reducing the penalty against Klein in June 2020 to a reprimand and $2,500 fine!

Thanks to all this bureaucratic bungling, Klein never lost his nursing license, and he continued to evade state charges for raping any of the prisoners who accused him. “In a case as big as this one with as many potential victims as there are, it’s bewildering that anything could go missing, let alone interviews with victims, or witnesses or anything that would tend to establish these crimes had occurred,” said Julie Abbate, a former deputy chief with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, who now works with Just Detention, a nonprofit that seeks to end sexual abuse in detention.

Sadly, such indifference from prison officials, law enforcement and prosecutors is not unusual in prison sex abuse cases. Nationally, there were 2,229 substantiated incidents of staff sexual abuse and sexual harassment of prisoners between 2016 and 2018, according to a January 2023 report by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Yet despite determinations that incidents occurred, prison employees were arrested in just about a third of the cases brought against them. Only 6% of those cases led to a guilty plea, conviction, fine or other form of accountability.

Federal Intervention Saves the Day

“Contributing to the systemic dysfunction of [DOC], a culture of abuse of power, coercion, and sexual violence exists within the state agency,” declares a 2022 report entitled ODOC: Agency in Crisis, issued by the Oregon Justice Resource Center, (OJRC), a non-profit prison reform group. The report highlights the Klein case, the pervasive indifference of state officials and a culture of retaliation in DOC for reporting misconduct.

“Despite a cascade of evidence revealing serious issues within the department, [DOC] continues to put forward a misleading narrative that either ignores the issues entirely, profoundly sanitizes the facts, or wrongly shifts blame and responsibility away from itself,” OJRC declared in a press release about the report on June 17, 2022. “Unfortunately, state leaders continue to show a strong commitment to accepting [DOC]’s false narrative without scrutiny or inquiry. Even worse, state leaders have promoted these false narratives by regularly espousing praise and gratitude for [DOC] Director Colette Peters’ leadership, even when that leadership has resulted in disastrous consequences.”

By doing so, they “continue to signal and message those in custody and their loved ones that their voices and lives do not matter; that the harms, dysfunction, and abuse they have suffered by [DOC] are irrelevant, frivolous, and untrue,” the OJRC press release correctly notes.

For most incarcerated sexual assault victims, this is typically the tragic end of the story: Officials circle their wagons to protect one another from the consequences of their inaction, blaming victims and letting perpetrators go free. But thanks to Michelle Burrows, a tenacious attorney who has successfully litigated CCCF sexual abuse cases over more than two decades, the story for Klein’s victims did not end there.

In March 2019, Burrows filed separate federal civil rights lawsuits for the estate of the prisoner who killed herself and nine other living Klein victims. This appears to have caught the eye of the FBI, which soon opened a federal investigation.

While federal prosecutors have been tight-lipped, they acknowledge that FBI agents and federal prosecutors used the OSP investigation to inform their own inquiry. That included some of the interviews that the Washington County DA’s Office claims to have never seen. They also reached out to those local prosecutors, and they attempted to question Klein.

Ultimately, federal prosecutors saw as compelling what state prosecutors couldn’t be bothered with: Klein’s pattern of behavior in grooming each of his victims for abuse. Beginning where the OSP investigation left off, federal agents identified and spoke with nine additional victims, bringing the total to 27. Each prisoner had a similar story to tell.

Before all of his victims had come forward, Burrows deposed Klein under oath in the federal litigation in 2019. “There are 18 women who have made accusations against you for sexual touching or comments,” the attorney said. “Are each one of these women telling the truth, as far as you know?”

“No,” Klein answered. “They’re not telling the truth.”

“They’re not? They’re all lying?” Burrows asked.

“Yes,” Klein said. He specifically denied touching or even knowing either Wilson or the prisoner identified as “S.”

In an earlier sexual abuse suit Burrows filed, she claimed that that CCCF management’s “blasé attitude” had resulted in “a lot of sexual misconduct,” calling the prison a “cesspool” that punishes victims and enables abusers. Clearly, little has changed since then.

The state quickly began settling 11 suits, eventually shelling out a total of $1,872,000. Burrows brought 10 of those cases, including one for Crystal Gomes, whose claim had been dismissed as “unfounded” by DOC; she received the highest settlement, $290,000, in May 2020. See: Gomes v. ODOC, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:19-cv-00573.

Aided by attorney Melissa Hopkins, Wilson received $150,000 in March 2022. See: Wilson v. Oregon, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:20-cv-02078.

Three other prisoners represented by Burrows proceeded under an alias, with $235,000 paid “Sarah Smith” in January 2020, $250,000 to “Noah Carter” in April 2020 and $135,000 to “Cassidy Jackson” in May 2020. See: Smith v. ODOC, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:19-cv- 00275; Carter v. ODOC, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:19-cv-00276; and Jackson v. ODOC, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:19-cv-00515.

Burrows also reached settlements in five other cases, with the state paying $145,000 to Lisa Culley, $150,000 to Melissa Vitellaro, $165,000 to Kristy Devlin and $185,000 to Autumn Brelin, all in January 2020, plus another $117,000 paid to Ashley Sweeney in April 2020. See: Culley v. ODOC, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:19-cv-00926; Vitellaro v. ODOC, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:19-cv-00174; Devlin v. ODOC, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:19-cv-00234; Brelin v. ODOC, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:19-cv- 00672; and Sweeney v. ODOC, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:19-cv-00682.

Sadly, the lowest settlement—$50,000—was paid on behalf of the victim who committed suicide, Sara Suarez. Her estate was also represented by Burrows. See: Suarez v. ODOC, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:19-cv-00095.

Of course, defendant prison officials refused to admit liability, as they do when settling prisoner litigation. But on March 14, 2022—the same day that Wilson received the last of these settlements—federal prosecutors unsealed a 25-count indictment against Klein, charging the former CCCF nurse with sexually assaulting a dozen prisoners in 2016 and 2017. The indictment included 21 counts of “depriving the victims of their constitutional right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment by sexually assaulting them.” It also charged him with four counts of perjury for falsely claiming under oath—during his 2019 deposition in his victims’ federal suits—that he did not have sexual contact with prisoners at CCCF, “when he knew at that time that, in fact, he had engaged in sexual vaginal intercourse with at least one incarcerated adult while employed with the Oregon [DOC].”

DOC Director’s Shameless Audacity

“Today’s indictment shows that the voices of women in custody are heard and taken seriously,” declared DOC Director Colette S. Peters, shamelessly adding: “Allegations will not be swept under the rug or ignored.” That’s rich, indeed, given her staff’s failure to protect or even believe the prisoners Klein victimized, nor admit to any liability in causing their suffering.

Peters helmed DOC for a decade beginning in 2012, during which the flood of staff sexual abuse scandals at CCCF never slowed. Yet effective August 2, 2022, she became the new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which is suffering its own major sexual abuse crisis at multiple prisons, including one lockup now known as the “Rape Club.”

As PLN reported, Peters has already evoked the ire of Congress for the very same inaction, stonewalling and lack of transparency that plagued DOC under her leadership. Following an appearance before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on September 29, 2022, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) submitted a “short list of questions” that she still had not answered one year later. “These are not difficult questions,” Lee declared during a follow-up hearing on September 13, 2023. Witnesses testifying before the committee usually respond to written follow-up questions within a week, he noted.

Reminding Peters that she acknowledged during her 2022 honeymoon appearance that it was important to answer the committee’s questions in a timely fashion, Lee suggested that Peters be given until the end of the month to respond. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) offered a deadline of October 13, 2023. Both lawmakers told Peters that the clock was still ticking as they tried to get her to commit to a firm response deadline. Peters refused, however, claiming she could not comply with either deadline.

Cotton then tried a different tactic, asking how many guard positions were filled at the chronically understaffed agency. Peters said, “I don’t have that number in front of me.” Cotton told her the answer was 12,731—meaning that at least 7,700 positions remained vacant.

Democratic Senators joined in criticizing Peters’ performance. “You’ve now been in the post for about a year and Congress expects results,” said Sen. Jon Osoff (D-Ga.), who led a separate subcommittee investigation into the rampant sexual abuse of prisoners by BOP employees. [See: PLN, Sep. 2023, p.40.]

“Senators really take it personally when you don’t answer their questions,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the committee’s chairman, told Peters as he closed the two-hour hearing. “More than almost any other thing that I would recommend, I’d make that a high priority.”

Prosecutors Defend the Indefensible

Washington County DA Kevin Barton also publicly applauded the federal indictment, claiming that he was “very happy” that federal prosecutors were able to charge Klein. Yet he quickly defended his own failure to do so. “Their charges are based on evidence we in the DA’s office four years ago did not have, and that includes an FBI investigation and deposition testimony,” said Barton. Of course, he did not identify any evidence that state prosecutors could not have discovered had they not abandoned the prisoners and refused to prosecute Klein.

When Barton ran for re-election in 2022, Chief Deputy DA Lesowski felt compelled to make similar indefensible, self-serving claims in the media. “I know with absolute certainty that sexual assault victims are supported and believed in Washington County,” Lesowski wrote in an op-ed defending the refusal to prosecute Klein. “In 2018, the Washington County DA’s Office received the state police investigation regarding allegations of sexual contact with female inmates by prison nurse Tony Klein. The investigation was reviewed by an experienced sex crimes prosecutor who determined that the available evidence was not sufficient to prove criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt. … Her decision not to file charges was based on the available evidence and was legally correct.”

“After the 2018 charging decision, two significant developments occurred,” Lesowski continued. “One, Tony Klein provided sworn deposition testimony, and two, the FBI conducted an investigation that picked up where the state police investigation left off.” Of course, the deposition testimony formed the basis of only the four federal perjury charges, not the sex abuse charges, and state investigators could have obtained the same evidence the FBI ultimately found had local prosecutors not told them that it was pointless to continue investigating.

Adding this shameful insult to the profound injury that Klein inflicted drew sharp public rebuke. “The requirements for a prosecutor to bring charges are the reasonable belief—not absolute certainty—that there is probable cause to charge, that admissible evidence will support conviction, and that charging is in the interests of justice,” wrote Hillsboro attorney Molly Fellus in a letter to the editor of the Valley Times. “Charging decisions are thus entirely in the hands of what a prosecutor ‘reasonably believes.’ We need … a DA whose leadership makes clear they ‘reasonably believe’ all survivors—even those who are incarcerated.”

Donna Gustafson, whose own sexual abuse case was also not prosecuted by the county DA, agreed. “I see a culture that favors the easy way out,” wrote the now—Councilor of Forest Grove City in a letter to online news site Decrying “a department with a leader who claims success by counting easy wins,” she said “[t]here is no justice when a victim is not given the chance to face her attacker because the DA doesn’t feel like pressing charges.”

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Three days after Klein’s indictment was unsealed, Legacy Health fired him. The state Nursing Board also appears to have finally revoked his license. Klein’s criminal trial began July 10, 2023, and the jury returned its guilty verdicts 15 days later on 21 federal offenses for the abuse of nine prisoners. At his October sentencing, in addition to a three-decade prison sentence, he was also ordered to serve five years of post-release supervision. A hearing to determine the amount he owes in victim restitution will be held at a later date. See: United States v. Klein, USDC (D. Or.), Case No. 3:22-cr-00084.

“We thank the survivors of these assaults for having the courage to come forward and tell their story”, said Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, who prosecuted the case.

While Klein’s criminal trial was pending, OJRC’s Women’s Justice Project issued a second report critical of conditions and treatment at CCCF, entitled Death by a Thousand Cuts. That 43-page document cites PLN reporting from 2010 to note that “among the most serious problems facing [prisoners] at CCCF is the threat of sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation by [guards] and prison staff.” Prisoners “commonly report” that guards exploit them “by pressuring them into sex in exchange for preferential treatment,” as well as subjecting them to sexual harassment and intimidation for reporting “harassment and inappropriate behavior.” [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.18.]

“Half the [guards] in here are having affairs with inmates,” one prisoner told OJRC. “These young girls, I don’t blame them. They come from terrible circumstances, and that’s their survival. The guards exploit it.”

Another prisoner said that “when you go in to get a pair of jeans, you have to (try them on and get officer approval), and its usually a man. They say that if we wear clothes too tight it puts the male officers in jeopardy.”

Acting DOC director Heidi Steward said she was reviewing the 2023 OJRC report in detail, though she added in revealingly tone-deaf language that there is always room for improvement. “We will continue to work towards positive outcomes for all those who live and work in our institutions,” Steward chirped, apparently failing to grasp the severity of abuse occurring within the prison system. “It is also important to remember the last several years have been incredibly challenging for adults in custody and employees alike,” she added. “Employees face mandatory overtime, which is impacting their health and personal lives.”

And forcing them to rape the prisoners?

Thankfully, Julie Abbate of Just Detention said what Steward couldn’t bring herself to admit: “You can’t be more mistreated in a prison than being raped by staff. There’s nothing more egregious than sexual abuse of someone when they’re in custody. And there’s no excuse.”

Steward’s failure to comment or take immediate action on the report’s sexual abuse findings is no surprise to OJRC. “You basically have an agency that has really no oversight at the state level,” said Executive Director Bobbin Singh. “That is the culture they expect. They don’t expect to be transparent with their information. They don’t expect to have to share or have to be accountable for the information about what’s going on in their prison system. And that’s just a cultural phenomenon. That’s an expectation that we’ve allowed to occur.”

GIPA Report Echoes OJRC Findings

OJRC is not alone in its criticism of DOC. The 2022 Oregon Legislature allocated $500,000 for a Gender-Informed Practices Assessment (GIPA) at CCCF. The Center for Effective Public Policy in suburban Washington, D.C., and the Women’s Justice Institute, a Chicago-based advocacy group focused on female incarceration, began the assessment in December 2022. In January and February 2023, researchers made CCCF site visits, conducting 53 interviews with staff and prisoners, both current and former, as well as conducting 11 staff and 14 prisoner focus groups. They also reviewed dozens of policies and program documents and 575 completed prisoner surveys, representing a response from 61% of CCCF’s population.

“The GIPA report was a sobering read,” admitted Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek (D), who received a copy of the 229-page report on July 31, 2023. “It is incumbent on Oregon’s corrections system to ensure that the use of carceral settings yield [sic] the best possible public safety outcomes and set people up for successful re-entry.”

Like the OJRC reports that preceded it, the GIPA report found that allegations of sexual misconduct “are leading to punitive and retaliatory responses,” including “mistreatment from staff, being placed in segregation, transferred from minimum to medium [security], and taken off jobs.” Unsurprisingly, this is “perceived as a punishment,” creating “a dangerous situation where [prisoners] do not feel safe to report,” the GIPA researchers warned.

In fact, some prisoners reported intentionally breaking rules just to be removed from an area or job rather than risk retaliation by reporting sexual abuse. “I broke a rule so I would be taken off that job. I lost time, and it was a good job,” one told researchers.

Klein’s victims were equally concerned about negative repercussions from reporting his abuse. It took Wilson nearly a year to find the courage to speak out. “Why the delay?” she asked in her written report to prison officials on June 4, 2018. “Because of fear [of] retaliation and I didn’t have a clue how to handle this or even who to talk to. Who was safe with this fragile situation?” Whipple, her fellow prisoner and victim, never reported Klein’s misconduct, saying she feared that any response could delay her release from prison.

The GIPA report also found that the rate of self-harm and attempted suicide is disproportionately higher at CCCF than at Oregon’s male prisons. Women make up 7.5% of the state prison population but account for 29% of DOC’s suicide attempts, with 20 of 70 total reported suicide attempts coming from CCCF between February 1, 2022, and February 1, 2023. The prison also reported DOC’s second-highest number of self-harm incidents, representing 21% of all reports statewide.

Of course, these findings come as no surprise given the profound trauma that prisoners suffer, both while incarcerated and not. A 2012 federal report found that 86% of incarcerated women had experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes—twice the general population’s rate.

“There’s so much self-harm in here,” a CCCF prisoner told OJRC. “There’s a lot of overdoses, at least one every other week.” Reported another, “I was closer to killing myself this last summer than during the 20 years that I’ve been here.”

Beyond coming close, one of Klein’s victims actually committed suicide. Another, Whipple, correctly noted that prisoners cannot be rehabilitated when prison staff inflicts more pain. “Taking women in that situation and creating more trauma for women that have already experienced some of the most horrific things is baffling,” she said.

Agreed ORJC’s Singh: “Addressing women’s pathways into incarceration is essential to helping them prepare for life after prison and avoid slipping back into habits that will lead them to further contact with the legal system.” Yet DOC “is failing to provide what people need and is squandering opportunities to address trauma, develop new skills, and create a culture that is healing and empowering.”

Governor Demands Change,
But More Prisoners Victimized

Elisabeth Shepard, a spokesperson for Gov. Kotek, said her boss “believes DOC needs more transparency” and will work closely with prison officials to address concerns raised in the GIPA report and implement its recommendations.

On August 17, 2023, Kotek ordered DOC to determine any actions it can take without additional resources within 60 days. She also announced the creation of an advisory panel on Gender Responsive Practices in Corrections that began meeting to discuss the GIPA findings on September 7, 2023.

“In the wake of national, systemic shortcomings in meeting the needs of women who are incarcerated, I am resolved to confront these issues head on,” Kotek said.

Steward also claimed to be taking some action, though promising only that DOC “is actively working on next steps to attend to the recommendations” in the GIPA report. A DOC spokesperson claimed the agency will also hold “listening sessions” for staff and prisoners, apparently ignoring extensive interviews and surveys already conducted by GIPA researchers.

Meanwhile sexual predation by DOC staff continues, with a CCCF guard indicted for sexually abusing a prisoner on August 16, 2023. This time the Washington County DA’s Office filed charges against Sgt. Levi David Gray, 47, who faces two felony counts of CSM 1 and two misdemeanor counts of official misconduct. The 13-year DOC veteran engaged in “manual” and oral sex acts with a 19-year-old prisoner identified as “J.B.” on May 23, 2023, according to the indictment. But the prisoner’s attorney says the abuse was much more extensive.

“[S]tarting in April 2023 until the abuse was reported,” wrote longtime civil rights lawyer Lynn Walsh in a tort claim notice on August 28, 2023, “[t]he abuse would occur up to three times a day, up to 40 minutes on each occasion. Although [other guards] were making rounds while the abuse was occurring, they failed to intervene.” Like many other CCCF sexual abuse victims, J.B. has reported retaliation from prison staff since accusing Gray, the tort claim notice added. Walsh attempted to arrange a media interview with J.B., but prison officials refused. “Our experience shows that interviewing individuals can draw unwanted attention to them and may be disruptive,” declared DOC spokesperson Amber Campbell, who also refused to comment on the criminal charges pending against the guard.

Of course, preventing “unwanted attention” on prison officials was the point of silencing J.B. Meanwhile Gray has been on administrative leave since the day after he was indicted, according to the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST), the agency that certifies Oregon police and prison guards. DPSST opened a professional standards investigation into Gray on August 25, 2023.

Before coming to work for DOC in 2010, Gray worked in Utah and Washington state prisons. He was also a bouncer, then the manager, of a Portland strip club. After the club fired him, Gray filed a lawsuit with the Bureau of Labor & Industries, alleging that the club facilitated prostitution, discriminated against dancers based on their willingness to engage in unlawful sex acts, and that a club general manager sexually assaulted employees or paid to have sex with them. He also alleged that the club served alcohol to minors and allowed illegal drugs to be trafficked. Walsh asserted in the tort claim notice that Gray’s strip club employment should have “disqualified (him) from working in a women’s prison.” But, of course, it did not.

Earlier, in July 2021, OSP detectives were called to CCCF after another prisoner accused Gray of sexually assaulting her. The woman, whose name was redacted, also claimed that Gray smuggled cocaine into the prison in an Altoids mint container “and did three lines” with her, according to police reports. “On the same day, [the prisoner] claims Sgt. Gray touched her inappropriately through her cuff port,” the report states. On another day, Gray “escorted her to medical and sitting in the waiting room touched her vagina over and under her pants while waiting to be seen by nursing staff.”

But Gray was not then placed on administrative leave, according to DPSST records. “Employees who are under investigation are not always duty-stationed at home,” Campbell admitted. “Several factors are considered and decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.” She did not explain why Gray was not removed from his alleged victim.

Gray denied any wrongdoing when OSP detectives interviewed him in October 2021. They submitted their investigation to the Washington County DA’s Office. Just as they later did in the Klein cases, prosecutors initially compounded this victim’s suffering and facilitated Gray’s later victimization of many other prisoners by refusing to prosecute.

Senior Deputy DA Allison Brown issued a one-page memo refusing to file charges against Gray on December 20, 2021, noting the guard had worked in corrections for “almost 20 years.” Records revealed it was actually closer to 13 years, but either number is wholly irrelevant to whether he sexually abused a prisoner. Brown also noted that Gray’s alleged victim was a convicted felon—what a surprise to find one of those in prison!—and said “insufficient corroboration” doomed the prisoner’s report, along with “evidence that she has a motive to fabricate allegations against the suspect.”

As they later did with Klein’s victims, DOC officials also found the victim’s claims against Gray “unsubstantiated”—the most common finding for CCCF internal investigations between 2017 and 2021, according to the most recent available prison data.

“CCCF had among the highest number of substantiated and unsubstantiated PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] reports for sexual abuse and sexual harassment in nearly every reporting category,” according to the GIPA report. Yet, “staff and residents reported concern with PREA, including the lack of effective response and investigative protocols,” the GIPA report continued. “Residents reported that they do not feel safe to report, and, when they do, they experience punitive responses and retaliation from staff.” The GIPA researchers noted “an on-ground culture of acceptance” of sexual abuse and a “code of silence regarding the harmful treatment of women.”

“For example, staff reported that harmful treatment is not documented by security and non-security staff,” the report continued. “This allows such behavior to perpetuate unchecked and sends the message to residents and staff that it is acceptable and even deserved.”

Far too many prisoners have learned this the hard way. One, identified only as “K.M.,” also accused Gray of sexual abuse, asserting in a tort claim notice that she was “forced to perform an act for [his] sexual gratification” before he would bring items of her personal property while she was confined in the CCCF segregation unit. Other guards “were aware” of the abuse “yet turned a blind eye,” her claim notice alleged.

It is unclear whether “K.M.”’s allegations were ever investigated. However, OSP officials have now made a rare public plea for witnesses, other victims or anyone with information about Gray’s sexual abuse to contact lead investigative Detective Joshua McNeely “by calling the Oregon State Police dispatch center at 503-731-3030 and reference OSP case number SP23-149722.”

The culture of chronic abuse, retaliation and indifference to prisoners’ suffering understandably makes them “feel like they have been forgotten about and that their dire circumstances are going unnoticed,” OJRC concluded. “The needless suffering, indignity and inhumanity that has been allowed to proliferate at CCCF will go on if the voices of [prisoners] continue to be ignored.”

Following release of the GIPA report, Singh continued to call for the creation of a state Senate Subcommittee on Corrections, expedited judicial review for prisoner abuse claims and for Oregon’s leaders to listen to prisoners and take action.

“Governor Kotek and the leadership of [DOC] must listen to what people incarcerated at CCCF are telling them and take immediate action to avoid prolonging the unnecessary and inhumane conditions those in custody endure,” he said, “and finally accept that [DOC] is an agency in crisis requiring urgent attention and accountability.”  

Additional sources: Capital Chronicle, Forest Grove News Times, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Statesman Journal, U.S. News, Valley Times

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