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Victims tell senators of rampant sexual abuse in federal prisons

According to a Senate subcommittee, Bureau of Prisons employees sexually abused incarcerated women at 19 of 29 federal facilities over the past decade.

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On Tuesday, a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee held a hearing on its investigation into the disturbing raft of sexual abuse against women at facilities operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In his opening statement, the chair, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., said the BOP “is failing systemically to prevent, detect and address sexual abuse of prisoners by its own employees.”

The findings are the result of an eight-month investigation. According to the subcommittee, over the past decade Bureau of Prisons employees sexually abused incarcerated women in at least 19 of the 29 federal facilities — about two-thirds — where women have been held. Investigators found at least 134 cases to be substantiated, but Ossoff added a caveat.

“Given the fear of retaliation by survivors of sexual abuse; the apparent apathy by senior BOP officials at the facility, regional office and headquarters levels; and severe shortcomings in the investigative practices implemented by BOP’s Office of Internal Affairs and the Department of Justice inspector general, I suspect the extent of abuse is significantly wider.” 

Here are some of the other key findings in the investigative report:

  • The BOP has failed to prevent, detect and stop recurring sexual abuse in at least four federal facilities — including abuse by senior prison officials. (For example, at FCI Dublin, a federal prison in California, both the warden and the chaplain were among several employees who were found to have sexually abused incarcerated women.)
  • The BOP has failed to effectively implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a 2003 law meant to establish better standards and oversight to prevent sexual abuse in federal prisons — whether committed by incarcerated people or prison officials. (Just last week, the officer at FCI Dublin whose job was to ensure the prison complied with PREA was convicted of sexually abusing incarcerated women.) 
  • The failures have been systemic. Prisons were able to pass mandatory PREA audits during a time when officials there said there was a “culture of abuse” in the facilities. 
  • The BOP has a backlog of about 8,000 internal affairs cases that has built up over more than five years, including hundreds of sexual abuse allegations against staff that haven’t been investigated.

Tuesday’s hearing was largely carried by three women — witnesses — who suffered abuse while incarcerated. 

Carolyn Richardson told the story of her incarceration at New York City’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, from 2016 until two months ago. She explained that health complications caused her to become legally blind while in prison, and correctional officer Colin Akparanta — since convicted of abusive sexual contact with an inmate — preyed on her vulnerability by demanding sex in exchange for food and medicine. 

“Right at my most vulnerable, I believed that here was a person who cared about me when no one else did,” she said. “I was wrong.”

In a statement she submitted to the congressional record, she told of how the experience opened her eyes to rampant abuse. She described coming forward after Akparanta disappeared from the facility and she learned that he had been charged with sexually abusing at least four other incarcerated women. 

“I came to learn that officer-on-inmate sexual abuse is a pervasive issue throughout the BOP system, though rarely acknowledged in public,” she wrote. 

Briane Moore was incarcerated in West Virginia’s FCP Alderson, which she said was about 12 hours away from her family. 

She said a now-convicted former captain at the prison would rape her in secluded areas, routinely reminding her that he had power in determining whether she would be transferred closer to home. She said she stayed silent knowing he had the authority to put her in solitary confinement or transfer her to a prison even farther from her daughter and grandmother — and that prison officials could do the same if she reported the abuse. 

“The prison system calls this ‘protection’ because it separates us from the abuser,” she wrote in her prepared statement. “But it is punishment. It is retaliation. I saw it happen to other women in prison, and I knew that I would be punished ... I had to not help myself to help myself.”

Linda De La Rosa was yet another victim brave enough to speak about her trauma. She experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a now-convicted former correctional officer while she was locked up at FMC Lexington, a federal prison in Kentucky. De La Rosa, who has filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages for the abuse, said prison officials gave her attacker unsupervised time with her — even though the BOP had known for years that he was a sexual predator.

She ended her testimony with a plea. 

“Senators, I make one request: Stop this from happening, from repeating,” she said. “Now. Nothing you are hearing today is new. You have the power and the authority to force the system to change. Please use it.”

Brenda V. Smith, a law professor who was on the commission that helped develop the 2003 prison rape law, testified that the way prisons are audited under PREA must be reformed. Among other changes, she recommended using more neutral auditors; increasing the numbers of women on staff at all levels; decreasing the amount of time that male officials are unsupervised; and aggressively prosecuting offenders. 

We also heard testimony from within the DOJ.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz said improved surveillance cameras would help deter sexual abuse, and he also called on BOP officials to “take more timely and effective action” against officials accused of misconduct. And BOP Director Colette Peters, who became director in August after scandal-plagued former Director Michael Carvajal resigned, vowed to improve training so staff are better prepared to spot and report abuse, as well as to use prosecutions and other disciplinary measures to increase accountability.

With respect to Peters, one thing is abundantly clear after Tuesday’s testimony. The BOP can’t be taken at its word.