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Sexual abuse rampant in federal prisons, bipartisan investigation finds

Linda De La Rosa says her time at Federal Medical Center, a minimum security prison in Lexington, Ky., was a “living hell.”

In 2019, De La Rosa was one of three women to be sexually abused by a federal correctional officer at the facility. It took three years to arrest, prosecute and convict her attacker, who is now serving a 135-month sentence.

De La Rosa is one of hundreds of women in federal custody who have been sexually assaulted by Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) staff and officials, according to a new bipartisan report by the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released in a hearing on Tuesday. 

Over the course of an eight-month investigation, the subcommittee found BOP employees sexually abused female prisoners in at least two-thirds of federal prisons over the past decade. 

The Bureau has also failed to prevent, detect and stop recurring sexual abuse in at least four federal prisons. 

“Our findings are deeply disturbing and demonstrate, in my view, that the BOP is failing systemically to prevent, detect and address sexual abuse of prisoners by its own employees,” said Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), chairman of the subcommittee. 

The committee found that out of more than 5,000 allegations of sexual abuse by BOP employees, at least 134 were substantiated by internal investigations or by criminal prosecutions. Multiple BOP employees who admitted in sworn statements to sexually abusing prisoners also avoided criminal prosecution. Several were allowed to retire with benefits.

Among the lists of agencies cited in the investigation, the report specifically mentions the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif. At Dublin, the former warden and chaplain both sexually abused female prisoners. 

The facility became known as the “rape club,” and the warden was found guilty of eight charges of sexually abusing incarcerated women, forcing the women to pose naked and lying to the FBI about it, the Los Angeles Times reported last week. 

“Let me be absolutely clear: this situation is intolerable,” Ossoff said. “Sexual abuse of inmates is a gross abuse of human and Constitutional rights and cannot be tolerated by the United States Congress. It is cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and basic standards of human decency.”

The women who testified before the committee on Tuesday emphasized that they did not feel safe reporting the assault to officials. When they did, retaliation was swift.

“The ongoing threat of retaliation stopped me and other inmates from filing complaints, let alone timely ones,” De La Rosa testified. When she did finally report what happened to her, she was briefly transferred but ultimately sent back to Lexington. 

“When I returned to Lexington, all of my belongings were missing,” she said tearfully. “There were photos and letters from my son and daughter’s father, both of whom had passed. They can never be replaced. When I returned, I also learned my attacker was still working at that facility.”

In his position, De La Rosa’s attacker continued to access her personal history files, recordings of her telephone calls and personal emails, all of which he then used as additional leverage to extract sexual favors and threaten her safety.

“The system failed at every level, management from the warden on down repeatedly,” De La Rosa said. “It is not enough just to call this horrible. I believe the problem is the “old boys club.” Prison staff, managers, investigators, correctional officers — they all work together for years, if not decades. No one wants to rock the boat, let alone listen to female inmates.”

In 2003, then-President George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) into law. The goal was to detect and prevent rape in all prisons and to punish those for sexually abusing those in custody. 

According to Brenda V. Smith, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law who was appointed to the Prison Rape Elimination commission in 1994, the standards should work if applied correctly. The problem, she said, is facilities often look for ways around complying with PREA. 

“Agencies complain that the standards are nitpicking and not consistent with their lived experience of people in custody or correctional settings. They also argue that women in custody are trying to game the system by claiming that they were abused,” Smith testified Tuesday. “They claim that it would be too expensive or take too much time to follow the standards that will protect these women. They also argue that the standards are there, but you really don’t have to pay attention until there’s an audit.”

But Smith said the findings of the report and the testimonies of the women at Tuesday’s hearing indicate the issue is systemic.

“What’s clear from these incidents is that staff had unfettered, uninterrupted access to women,” she said. “They abused with impunity and at will. They abused women in their offices, in quarters out of sight of cameras and in collusion with other staff.”

Michael E. Horowitz, inspector general for the Department of Justice, said one way the agency is working to limit and catch sexual assaults is through updated technology such as more cameras around facilities.

Horowitz added a bigger question that needs to be addressed is why other BOP employees aren’t coming forward to report assaults. 

“They’re the first ones there, the eyes and ears, along with the inmates,” Horowitz said. “They’re the ones who need to come forward. There needs to be that ability and accountability for people who are responsible and for people who should have come forward, including supervisors.”

Colette S. Peters, BOP director, said the bureau is in the process of assembling teams to perform cultural assessments of each facility.

“When it’s high-level officials engaging in these egregious criminal acts, there’s clearly a culture,” Peters said. “But also when you find those who are incarcerated, who openly tell our cultural assessment team that they don’t feel comfortable coming forward, they don’t feel like there are avenues to report in a way where they can report without fear of reprisal, it’s those sort of warning signs that we want to be able to find during these cultural assessments so that we don’t have a Dublin repeat again and so that those individuals in our care and custody are safe.” 

Smith offered three recommendations to the panel. 

First, reform the audit process for PREA to better identify problems or practices that affect the protection of people in custody from abuse, including the requirements to become an auditor. 

Second, rather than having auditors who already work for the current agencies, agencies should hire and pay outside ones to ensure independence and no conflict of interest. 

Lastly, Smith said, extend the timing for the auditing process. Currently, she said, the auditing process does not allow for the time to look closely at institutions or interview women and outside sources to be able to identify problems.

These solutions should be in addition to ongoing PREA training for all auditors, Smith added. 

Tuesday’s hearing comes after previous investigations found a multitude of mistreatment in federal facilities. 

In November, the subcommittee found women at a Georgia detention center were abused through “unnecessary gynecological procedures.” Meanwhile, in September, the subcommittee found the DOJ was underreporting deaths of those in custody. 

Source: The Hill

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