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Senate probe found some federal prison staff abused female inmates without discipline

View of an empty prison corridor
WIN-Initiative/Neleman/Getty Images
View of an empty prison corridor

Editor's Note: This story includes reporting about rape, which some readers may find disturbing.

A bipartisan Senate investigation has found widespread sexual abuse of women in prison by the male wardens, officers and volunteers tasked to protect them, uncovering incidents inside at least two-thirds of the federal facilities that housed women over the past decade.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations also identified serious flaws in how such allegations are investigated and punished by the Justice Department.

"Our findings are deeply disturbing and demonstrate in my view that BOP is failing systemically to prevent, detect and address sexual abuse of prisoners by its own employees," said Sen. Jon Ossoff, a Democrat from Georgia who led the investigation.

In one California facility, the chaplain and warden were convicted of preying on women behind bars. The person in charge of complying with a federal law designed to prevent prison rape there also was abusing women.

In another episode, in Florida, all the women inside the facility were moved two days before an audit, preventing them from being interviewed.

Survivors of assault behind bars appeared before the Senate panel to share their own stories.

Wiping tears from her eyes as she testified Tuesday, Briane Moore said a captain at the federal prison in Alderson, W.Va., began targeting her in 2017. Moore had been seeking a transfer to be closer to her daughter.

"He took me to areas that were isolated in the prison, where there were no cameras," Moore told lawmakers. "He told me he knew I wanted to transfer to another prison. He said, 'the paperwork goes through me.' "

Moore said she felt powerless, since the captain had "total control" over when she slept, ate and worked inside the prison camp.

After word finally came that she could move to a different prison, Moore said, the captain raped her one last time. Now out of prison for three years, Moore said she continues to seek mental health treatment.

"After the abuse, I could not sleep for full nights for months," she said. "I had recurring nightmares that played over and over like a broken record. I woke up in cold sweats."

Eventually, Moore's abuser was convicted for assaulting her and others.

But that experience is unusual for the federal Bureau of Prisons.

The Senate report found a backlog of hundreds of sexual abuse allegations in the internal affairs unit for the prison system.

"In fact several officers who admitted under oath to sexually abusing prisoners were nonetheless able to retire with benefits," Ossoff said.

Another witness at the subcommittee hearing, Linda De La Rosa, said it took three years to arrest, convict and sentence the prison worker who raped her, even though he had been investigated for predatory behavior several times before.

"I believe the problem is the old boys club," De La Rosa said. "Prison staff, managers, investigators, correctional officers, they all work together for years if not decades. No one wants to rock the boat let alone listen to female inmates."

Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University, urged the Justice Department to hire more women to work in women's prisons and to beef up audits of prison conditions, with independent verification such as looking at complaints and lawsuits.

"We have the people who are supposed to be being audited, auditing themselves, essentially, and so what happens is there's not a great deal of diversity," Smith said.

Collette Peters, the new chief of the federal prisons, told senators she's looking at how wardens in facilities for women are selected and supervised. She also pledged to update camera systems in prison.

"Any kind of misconduct, especially sexual misconduct by bureau employees, is always unacceptable and must not be tolerated," Peters said.

Peters says prison employees have an obligation to come forward to identify predators in their ranks.

Last month, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco called for harsher penalties for corrections officials who abuse the public trust.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.