Sexual Abuse in Women’s Federal Prison Facilities Reviewed by Justice Department Teams

Investigators found a "culture of permissiveness" among staff at federal women's prison facilities, which helped perpetrate incidents of sexual abuse against prisoners.

Some policies in the federal prison system allow for a culture of sexual abuse, which has resulted in lenient treatment of staff engaged in criminal activities, according to a review of women’s facilities conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Those determinations come as the result of the Justice Department’s Sexual Abuse Facility Enhancement and Review (SAFER) program, which published its initial findings last week. The SAFER program focuses on promoting safe and effective reporting against prison employees as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

In April, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco tasked SAFER working group teams to visit Federal Bureau of Prisons women’s facilities to identify, assess, and issue recommendations regarding ongoing sexual misconduct within federal prisons.

Starting in early June, the teams visited women’s facilities in six regions, to review progress that has been made implementing recommendations included in the Department of Justice’s Response to Sexual Misconduct by Employees of the Federal Bureau of Prisons report, which was issued in 2022 by the department’s Sexual Misconduct Working Group.

Problems with Sexual Abuse in Women’s Federal Prisons

Over the past five years, federal prisons have received hundreds of complaints of prison sexual abuse perpetrated by guards, wardens, Chaplains, drug treatment counselors or other prison employees. During the same time, the Department of Justice prosecuted 45 of those cases.

SAFER teams reviewed facility conditions, medical and mental health services, reentry programming, the Special Housing Unit, and conducted interviews with employees and inmates. They also met with local nonprofit groups that provide support services to survivors of sexual abuse.

What they found was a “culture of permissiveness” toward staff misconduct and a pattern of retaliation against victims who reported abuse, according to the teams’ findings.

Even in cases where prosecutions were made, sentencing was disproportionately lenient. The review group indicated weak or nonexistent discipline was taken against some prison workers, and they identified flaws in how prosecutors address sexual abuse in prison facilities.

In one case, a Drug Treatment Specialist employee pled guilty to five counts of sexual abuse against inmates in his drug treatment class. He admitted to grooming victims and directed them to cover up the assaults and hide evidence.

Sentencing guidelines for this case called for only an 18-to-24-month prison sentence.

SAFER Sexual Abuse Prevention Recommendations

Another goal of the prison reviews included determining how the prisons are following the SAFER recommendations outlined in the 2022 report.

Some of the recommendations include better prevention of staff sexual misconduct, changing the culture and environment in federal prisons, and the use of early warning systems to detect unusual staff behavior. In addition, the program calls for improved security cameras to reduce blind spots in prison system surveillance systems as well as increasing pay for wardens.

SAFER guidelines also call for enhanced reporting of sexual misconduct, establishing hotlines for incarcerated women and their families to report an assault, and improving the culture to prevent retaliation against victims who report an assault, including threats of reducing visits by family members.

The program additionally called on the Department of Justice to prioritize investigations and prosecutions of staff who are accused of sexual misconduct, and improving sentencing recommendations and upscaling from minimum recommendations.

Other recommendations the team is reviewing in prison facilities include reviewing and validating prison sexual assault prevention programs, assigning specially trained neutral agents to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct so the investigations aren’t conducted by prison personnel or friends of the alleged perpetrator, and reducing prison sentences for victims of sexual misconduct where warranted.


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