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$1 Million Settlement for California Prisoners Used to Bait Guard Charged with Sexual Misconduct

PLN previously reported a remarkably poor decision by prison officials at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Chino in 2017, who used two prisoners as “honey trap” bait to snare a male guard accused of sexual misconduct. [See: PLN, Sept. 2021, p.7].

One of the “Jane Doe” prisoners told investigators that guard Stephen Merrill, who worked the night shift, had been sexually harassing her, making sexual comments and pressuring her to touch his penis. She became depressed due to his unwanted advances and took a drug overdose that put her on suicide watch. When she was returned to the prison’s general population, she was placed in a cell with the other prisoner.

Internal Affairs (IA) captain Joseph Spinney and special agent Michael Newman decided to catch Merrill “in the act,” by having both prisoners serve as bait; they were to flirt with Merrill in their cell, which would be equipped with audio and video recording devices to capture the moment he entered the cell by himself – a major policy violation that would result in firing.

“Jane Doe 2” was provided a code phrase – “Can we get some pizza?” – that she could use to call for help in case Merrill went too far. She was assured that agents were standing by from IA and the Investigative Services Unit (ISU) of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). The other “Doe” was not informed about the sting operation.

On October 30, 2017, Merrill entered the prisoners’ cell by himself – several times – but no ISU or IA agents intervened. On his fourth visit he digitally penetrated the unwitting “Jane Doe 3,” prompting “Jane Doe 2” to use the code phrase. But there was no response from the investigators who were supposed to be monitoring the operation.

Merrill then digitally penetrated Doe 2 and began pushing her head towards his penis. She again said, “Can we get some pizza?” Only then did ISU and IA agents arrive and take Merrill into custody.

He later pleaded no contest to sexual activity by a public employee with a consenting adult – even though prisoners cannot legally consent to sex with prison staff. CDCR fired him, and he received a suspended two-year sentence with probation.

The two prisoners remained at CIW, receiving psychiatric counseling. In 2021, they filed suit in federal court for the Central District of California, alleging CIW and CDCR officials had failed to protect them from sexual assault during the sting operation. The case settled in October 2022 for a total of $1 million, with each plaintiff receiving $500,000, inclusive of attorney fees. They were represented by attorney Jennifer A. Bandlow. See: Doe v. Merrill, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:21-cv-00771.  

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