Colorado: Female prisoners file lawsuit against sexual abuse by prison guards

From the Denver Post:

The state’s Department of Corrections harbors an “overt culture of sexual abuse” by prison guards, and department leaders have done little to stop it, according to a lawsuit pending in federal court.

Ten female Colorado prison inmates sued the department last month, claiming repeated acts of sex abuse by male corrections officers.

The complaint details more than a dozen instances in which it claims officers in two prisons — the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility and the since-closed, privately run Brush Correctional Facility — coerced women into performing sex acts on them.

The officers made threats to have the women “written up” or to make life difficult if the women did not submit, according to the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Department of Corrections officials failed to take “substantive remedial actions” to stop it, the lawsuit charges.

The department and the company that ran the Brush facility, GRW Corp., continued to employ officers suspected of abuse and failed to improve surveillance systems to reduce blind spots where abuse could occur, the suit says.

“This conduct amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights of inmates,” the lawsuit claims. “. . . The conduct is so grossly reckless that future misconduct was and is virtually inevitable.”

The inmates, who are represented by the Denver law firm Irwin and Boesen, are seeking to have the case certified for class-action status.

Katherine Sanguinetti, a Corrections Department spokeswoman, said the department will not comment on ongoing litigation.

The case becomes at least the second one pending in federal court in which a female inmate claims she was coerced into performing sex acts on a Colorado prison officer.

It comes not two years after a federal judge awarded $1.3 million in damages to another Colorado female inmate who alleged sexual assault by a guard. In making that award in 2009, Judge David M. Ebel said the sexual abuse of inmates in Colorado prisons was “distressingly common.”

As part of the settlement, corrections officials were supposed to beef up surveillance systems to eliminate blind spots, said Mari Newman, the plaintiff’s attorney in the 2009 case. The new lawsuit shows sex abuse by guards is still of “endemic proportions,” Newman said.

Sanguinetti said department officials have a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual misconduct by corrections officers.

Since 2009, she said, the department has improved officer training and encouraged inmates to report abuse. Officers, staff members and volunteers who cross the line are prosecuted criminally. The department has sought to eliminate security camera gaps, but Sanguinetti said some blind spots are inevitable.

She said the department welcomes civil judgments against officers who commit abuse.

“This type of thing does raise awareness of these issues,” Sanguinetti said. “For our staff and correctional staff everywhere, it sends a pretty strong message.”

Read more: Female inmates file lawsuit claiming sex abuse by guards – The Denver Post
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Resisting Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex

–An interview with Victoria Law

By Angola 3 News

Victoria Law is a longtime prison activist and the author of the 2009 book, Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women(PM Press). Law’s essay “Sick of the Abuse: Feminist Responses to Sexual Assault, Battering, and Self Defense,” is featured in the new book, entitled The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism, edited by Dan Berger.

In this interview, Law discusses her new article, which provides a history of radical feminist resistance to the criminalization of women who have defended themselves from gender violence. Furthermore, Law presents a prison abolitionist critique of how the mainstream women’s movement has embraced the US criminal justice system as a solution for combating violence against women.

Previously interviewed by Angola 3 News about the torture of women in US prisons, Law is now on the road with the Community and Resistance Tour.

Angola 3 News: In your essay “Sick of the Abuse,” you write that “a woman’s right to defend herself (and her children) from assault became a feminist rallying point throughout the 1970s.” You focus on the four separate stories of Yvonne Wanrow, Inez Garcia, Joan Little, and Dessie Woods. All four women were arrested for self-defense and their cases received national attention with the support of the radical women’s movement. Can you briefly explain their cases and why they were so important for the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s?
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ACLU Confronts Denver Prison’s Abusive Strip Searches

by Michelle Chen

The ACLU has launched a blitzkrieg against the abuse of women in prison, from a health care crisis in a Wisconsin facility to horrid sexual abuse cases in immigration detention. But its case against strip searches at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility plumbs new depths of degradation.

Prison staff have allegedly subjected women to traumatic and humiliating body-cavity searches using enhanced techniques that supposedly guard against hiding “contraband” in a woman’s genitals. The ACLU’s press release states that the group “has received letters in recent weeks from prisoners at DWCF who complain that being forced to comply with the new search policy—under the threat of being doused with pepper spray—exacerbates prior sexual trauma.”

According to one woman’s testimony to the ACLU:

The [labia] lift is treated differently by officers, but generally involves spreading your legs and parting your outer labia so an officer can do a visual inspection of your genitals. I have had to perform this procedure simply standing; from a sitting position with my legs spread eagle and having a flashlight shined at my genitals; from a standing position with a foot perched on a toilet and an officer’s face inches from my genitals; in front of multiple officers and once in front of an officer and two Life Safety trainees….
Being a survivor of sexual trauma the new labia-lift procedure encouraged my post-traumatic stress disorder. I had periodic flashbacks …. I have also witnessed women literally crying when they were subjected to the labia lift…

The ACLU doesn’t categorically object to visual inspections for security. But this distinctly invasive kind of probe, not to mention the unsettling alliterative moniker, seems deliberately aimed at dehumanizing women and rendering them utterly powerless over their bodies. The abusive impulse reflects the perverse power imbalance inherent in the prison system. The racial and gender lines that stratify Colorado’s prisons project the same intricate oppression on a mass scale.

According to the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, “85% of women sent to Colorado’s prisons last year were convicted of a non-violent offense”—including many mothers of young children. Nearly half of the female prison population were “diagnosed as needing mental health treatment,” and more than 80 percent were “assessed to be in need of substance abuse treatment.” Moreover, Blacks made up less than four percent of the state population but roughly one fifth of people locked up in state prison.

By compelling women to expose themselves in unspeakable ways, the prison staff teach their captives a lesson: once you’re inside, your body becomes public property

Private Prison Reaches Settlement on Sexual Abuse Lawsuit

DENVER (AP) ― The operators of a Colorado private prison have agreed to pay $1.3 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that male officers forced female workers to perform sex acts to keep their jobs.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced the settlement with the Dominion Correctional Services LLC and Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America on Tuesday.

The suit, filed by the EEOC in 2006, also alleged that women who worked at the Crowley County Correctional Facility were subjected to comments about their bodies and inappropriate touching. It accused the companies of retaliating against women who complained.

In one case, the EEOC alleged that a female officer who complained about being sexually harassed by a male co-worker was subsequently placed in an isolated location where she was raped by the man she complained about. A female officer also said the prison’s former security chief forced her to
have sex to keep her job.

The companies didn’t admit liability as part of the settlement. CCA bought  the prison from Dominion in 2003 and said most of the more serious  allegations in the lawsuit dated from the time Dominion operated the  prison.

In a written statement, CCA spokeswoman Louise Grant said the company  settled the claim to avoid the time, expense and uncertainties of a trial.

“Throughout this litigation and in the settlement document, CCA expressly denied any wrongdoing,” she said.

EEOC acting Chairman Stuart J. Ishimaru said the agency sees many sexual  harassment cases but that the allegations in the complaint against the  prison were “shocking.”

“No working woman should ever have to endure harassment and requests for  sexual favors by managers in order to earn a paycheck — or suffer  retaliation for complaining about the illegal harassment,” Ishimaru said  in a statement.