Editor’s note: This is a longer version of an article originally published in Breaking the Chains magazine.
In December 2019, 14 women, both former and current inmates at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex, filed a lawsuit accusing the Florida prison of creating a “sanctuary” for sexual abuse. The plaintiffs describe in chilling detail how officers coerced, threatened and stalked them into submission, how they were trapped and assaulted in private offices or remote sheds with no surveillance cameras. Officers used the wooded paths on the prison grounds as secluded places to take inmates to rape them or force them to sunbathe topless for guards’ enjoyment. If the women complained, they were punished. Their abusers monitored their emails and phone calls, warned them they knew where their families lived and transferred anyone who spoke up to the more restrictive county jail, which cost them progress they had made in their training and work programs.
The Coleman suit is only unique in the sense that fourteen women came forward with their full names, seven of whom are still incarcerated. Women have long testified to a culture of rampant abuse in jails and prisons, under police custody, that suggests the U.S. justice system as a whole functions as a sanctuary for abuse.
Numerous studies have shown that in prisons and jails throughout the country, guards and staff use their power over inmates to rape, sexually assault and harass with almost total impunity. Studies also show that guards disproportionately target LGBTQ women, inmates suffering from mental illness and inmates who challenge their authority.
In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed to respond to the extreme levels of sexual abuse in U.S. prisons. Seventeen years in, the law has done little to actually root out abuse. A 2018 PREA report for all Coleman facilities concluded that the facility met all standards of the law and needed no corrective action.
States choose whether to comply with PREA and only face a small financial penalty for noncompliance. For almost a decade there weren’t even standards for compliance. Since the Justice Department issued the first set of standards in 2012, requiring that detention facilities provide inmates with third-party ways to report sexual abuse and that every allegation is investigated, inmates’ reports have skyrocketed. Yet somehow the number of cases that prison officials decide are legitimate has remained almost the same.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 2012 and 20 15, correctional administrators reported 36,578 allegations of staff assault on inmates but decided only 6.7% were “founded.” The idea that more than 90 percent of reports would be made up defies logic. Prisoners who report abuse by prison staff are extremely vulnerable to retaliation from their abusers, who have control over virtually every aspect of their lives.
After a 1996 Human Rights Watch report on sexual abuse in state prisons led to a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Corrections, the researchers found that virtually all of the women interviewed for the study faced retaliation by the accused officer, his colleagues, correctional officials, or other inmates. HRW documented threats of physical harm, abusive body searches, verbal harassment and trumped-up misconduct tickets that caused women to lose visitation rights with their families and even impacted their chances of early release.
Even of the rare cases where an inmate reports and administrators conclude that abuse did in fact occur, fewer than half are referred for prosecution, and only 1 percent ultimately lead to conviction. Roughly one-third of staff caught abusing prisoners are allowed to resign before the investigation comes to a close, meaning there’s no public record of their abuse and nothing keeping them from getting a similar job at another facility.
Similar patterns in youth detention
Youth in juvenile detention facilities are likewise preyed upon by staff. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2018 an estimated 7.1 percent of children in juvenile facilities reported being sexually victimized during the previous 12 months and 5.8 percent of youth reported sexual misconduct by facility staff. The study also identified twelve facilities with dramatically higher rates of sexual victimization of children, with rates as high as 26 percent of children reporting sexual abuse at Liberty Juvenile Unit in Florida.
Parole officer abuse
The abuse does not stop at the prison gates. For prisoners released on parole, their freedom is in the hands of their parole officer. Parole officers exercise enormous discretion over whether a parolee winds up back behind bars. Almost 80% of all US inmates end up back in jail within five years of being released, sometimes for reoffending outright, but in tens of thousands of cases, simply over minor infractions.
Experts believe abuse by probation and parole officers goes vastly underreported, but published reports make clear that sexual exploitation by parole officers happens all the time.
A October 2019 lawsuit accused a California parole officer, Andre Lovan, of forcing a parolee to provide him with sex on demand, under threat that she would be sent back to jail if she resisted or denied him. For almost a year, Lovan made her meet for in-person visits four times more often than was required and even made her pay to book hotel rooms where he would rape her.
Another case in 2015 involved a Florida woman who videotaped her parole officer raping her so that she could prove her case to police. She feared if she could not prove her abuse that her parole officer would send her back to prison, as he had threatened multiple times.
Police & sexual violence
In 2015, Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was convicted of multiple counts of rape and sexual assault involving seven women and one teenager, all Black. Eighteen women testified to Holtzclaw’s abuse, painting a picture of a sexual predator with a badge who deliberately preyed on Black women because of their additional vulnerability in police encounters. One of the women recounted being pulled over late at night, being ordered out of her car for a violating “search”, then directed to Holtzclaw’s squad car where he raped her. Other women were brutalized in their own homes, on their own porches and even in hospital beds.
Sexual abuse is the second most reported form of police misconduct, following only excessive force. Yet there is no entity tasked with tracking police sexual misconduct nationally. Independent research by the Associated Press found that between 2009-14 approximately 550 officers lost their licenses for sexual assault for actions including rape, forcing victims to perform sexual acts to avoid arrest and pat-downs involving assault. Another 440 officers lost their badges for still other crimes, such as possession of child pornography, non-consensual voyeurism and sexual harassment of children. Even these staggering numbers are unquestionably low; not all states revoke officers’ licenses for sexual misconduct and only a fraction of women report, especially when the abuser is in law enforcement.
Multiple studies have shown that police officers bring these violent, misogynistic tendencies home. Two studies found that at least 40 percent of families of police officers experience domestic violence, in contrast with a 10 percent rate among the civilian population. These estimates may still be low, as family members of police officers are even less likely to report their abuse than society at large. Not only does their abuser have a gun and know where the domestic violence shelters are, but the case against him will be handled by his colleagues and friends, who are well known to protect their own. The San Diego police department, for example, prosecutes 92 percent of civilian cases of domestic violence, but only 42 percent of cases in which a police officer is the perpetrator.
Research suggests this same pattern exists among correctional officers. A 2012 study from Florida State University that surveyed Florida correctional officers found that 49 percent of respondents believed domestic violence is common in families of criminal justice officers. More than a third of officers personally knew at least one officer who had committed domestic violence that went unreported.
Even in non-officer-involved offenses, cops treat victims with suspicion and hostility and fail to take their accusations seriously. The grueling and violating process of reporting rape to the police is one of the primary reasons many women don’t report. Police have even prosecuted women for bringing forward rape cases that they decided were made up. In 2015, the New York Times wrote about an 18-year-old named Marie who reported being raped. Instead of pursuing her rapist, detectives turned Marie into the suspect, seizing on small inconsistencies in her account. They charged her with false reporting, and she was ordered to pay $500 in court costs, seek mental health counseling for her lying and was put on supervised probation for one year. Two years later, police in Colorado arrested a serial rapist and discovered a photograph proving he had raped Marie.
Police departments have grossly neglected the need to process crucial evidence in rape cases. A 2015 USA Today investigation revealed that over 70,000 rape kits from over 1,000 police departments nationwide went untested. Despite its scope, the count encompasses only a fraction of the country’s 18,000 police departments, suggesting the number of untested rape kits reaches into the hundreds of thousands. The failure of police to investigate and prosecute rapes is so far reaching that of 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators walk free.
The system is guilty!
In a society where women are constantly subjected to violence and abuse, the very forces that are supposed to “protect and serve” in fact harbor some of the most dangerous predators women can encounter. The justice system has long been aware of this fact, and women continue to risk their lives to expose their abuse, but little is done to end the abuse.
The reality is women’s safety is simply not a priority to the current justice system, and this is doubly true for women of color, LGBTQ people, those suffering from mental illness, and prisoners. Women and all of the oppressed need a new system, with new mechanisms for justice, if we are to truly live with safety and security.