ThinkProgress

Sexual assault of inmates by staff is prevalent and often goes unpunished

CREDIT: Getty Images

A guard at a New Jersey women’s prison was arrested on Friday and charged with sexual assault, joining the five corrections officers charged with sexual abuse at the same prison last year. Ronald Coleman Jr. worked as a corrections officer since 2000, according to MyCentralJersey.com.

Coleman, a corrections officer at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, was charged with two counts of second-degree sexual assault, two counts of second-degree conspiracy to commit sexual assault, three counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact, seven counts of second-degree official misconduct, and one count of second-degree pattern of official misconduct, which involved three female inmates at the prison.

Five other male corrections officers were indicted last year on two dozen plus charges of official misconduct and sexual abuse of eight female prisoners. Three of these men worked as corrections officers for over a decade, according to New Jersey 101.5.

There are other signs of a pattern of abuse at the prison. In 2010 and 2011, three officers, Officers Erick Melgar, Jeffrey Smalls and Janette Bennett, were fired after inmates accused them of abuse. Two of the male officers were accused of violence, including sexual violence, and third officer, a woman, protected officers who abused female inmates by either turning a blind eye or urging them not to report officers. According to New Jersey 101.5’s reporting on patterns of abuse in the prison, women said the prison warden knew about Melgar in 2008 and that sexual abuse in the prison was common knowledge. The warden said he did not know about the officer’s abuse until 2010. One of the women who decided to sue the state after her abuse, Michelle Ellis, said Melgar would grope her breasts, which led her to lose weight in an effort to avoid sexual assault.

A 2014 Justice Department study found that allegations of sexual abuse in prisons and jails are on the rise. The Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that allegations were increasing and that in half of the allegations, correctional officers were responsible. There was also a growing proportion of allegations that were dismissed. Ten percent of allegations substantiated an investigation. Most of the corrections officers lost their jobs, but one-third of staff who were found to have abused inmates were allowed to resign before the investigation concluded and they weren’t prevented from moving to another facility. Only 1 percent who were involved in sexual misconduct were convicted for it.

National surveys show that 4 to 10 percent of current and former U.S. prison inmates are sexually abused in prison. Another study found that sexual victimization rates were higher in the female facility compared to male facilities. More than 21 percent of female inmates reported that they experienced sexual violence from other inmates and 7.6 percent reported that they were victimized by staff.

Seventy-nine percent of victims of staff sexual violence said they experienced shame or humiliation and 72 percent experienced a feeling of guilt. More than half said it was difficult for them to feel close to friends and family as a result of the sexual abuse, according to a 2008 national former prisoner survey.

Although prisoners can fight these conditions with class action lawsuits, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 made it challenging for prisoners who are sexually abused to seek any kind of legal remedy. The law was supposed to stop prisoners’ “frivolous lawsuits.” It can take months to go through a prison’s administrative complaint procedures before a prisoner can bring a lawsuit and prisoners have to file complaints with the people who may have denied them medical treatment, explained Ian Head in New Republic. After the prisoner receives a refusal of the complaint, they would have to appeal the decision and after a judgment on the appeal, a prisoner can finally file a legal case.

For female inmates who successfully bring a class action lawsuit regarding prison sexual abuse and retaliation for reporting, the results were mostly positive, according to a 2016 study. In terms of the financial outcomes, women said they were able to use the settlement money for basic items such as toilet paper that prisoners have to purchase, dental care, and help for family outside the prison. Prisoners also said they were able to avoid doing anything illegal or dangerous to purchase necessities in prison. The majority of women interviewed for the study said there were positive changes to safety as a result, such as male correctional staff being removed from housing units and pat-downs being performed only by female correctional officers. However, once the lawsuit was over, women said that they faced a hostile environment because of officers and administrators’ reactions to the lawsuit. One woman said, “… staff continue to discuss my settlement and judge me by it—I get more unnecessary tickets because of it.”