Federal Prisons

Lawsuit Alleges 'Rampant' Sexual Abuse at Federal Prison

Those who reported sexual abuse were sent to a county jail, the suit alleges.

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Fourteen current and former inmates of a federal women's prison in Florida have filed a federal lawsuit saying guards subjected them to unending sexual abuse and threats. When the inmates tried to report the misconduct, the suit alleges, they were shuttled off to a county jail or put in solitary confinement.

The lawsuit, first reported by the Miami Herald, accuses eight correctional officers of numerous, detailed instances of rape. It also says the leadership at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex—a sprawling Bureau of Prisons (BOP) campus in central Florida—created a "sanctuary" for guards who were known sexual predators.

"The sexual abuse at these female prisons is rampant but goes largely unchecked as a result of cultural tolerance, orchestrated cover-ups and organizational reprisals of inmates who dare to complain or report sexual abuse," the suit says.

The suit is notable for its specific and disturbing claims, for the number of plaintiffs, and for the fact that all of the women went on the record with their full names.

Kara Guggino, 35, is a former inmate at Coleman and one of the plaintiffs. She tells Reason that sexual abuse is pervasive in the federal prison system.

"I was incarcerated for almost eight years, and I saw it at pretty much every single institution I was at," Guggino says. "I was at maybe six different places, and this was going on everywhere. But it was by far the worst at Coleman."

According to the lawsuit, Guggino was first abused by a guard at a federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida, who stalked, threatened, and forced himself on a regular basis for several years. She says prison administrators put her in solitary confinement three separate times as punishment for her nonconsensual encounters with the officer, while the officer escaped punishment altogether.

Guggino was eventually transferred to a federal women's prison in Alabama, where she says investigators began questioning her about the abuse again.

Fearing retaliation from the guard, who she says once pulled up a map of her family's house and showed it to her, Guggino at first refused to cooperate. As a result, she says, she was once again put in solitary confinement. 

Guggino says investigators from the Department of Justice Inspector General's Office threatened to keep her in solitary for the rest of her sentence—five years in a cell the size of a parking space, 23 hours a day—if she didn't cooperate. She relented, and says the next day she was released from solitary.

"They basically used that as a bully tactic to get me to comply," she says. "And then after all of this, nothing happened to the lieutenant. He still has his job in Tallahassee." 

Guggino, meanwhile, was transferred to Coleman's minimum security work camp for women. Coleman is the largest federal prison complex in the country, holding roughly 6,000 inmates in various facilities. Somehow, things were worse there.

The lawsuit describes a group of Coleman officers who assaulted women with impunity, trapping them alone in rooms without cameras, or taking them to the woods on the edge of the work camp, and forcing them to perform sex acts.

These demands were reportedly accompanied by threats. Coleman's correctional officers have control over inmates' lives, including coveted job assignments and vocational training. Two officers allegedly called one woman a "bitch" for not "playing ball" and removed her from her landscaping job.

The lawsuit claims that officers monitored victims' emails and phone calls, told them they know where their families live, and tried to force birth control on some inmates.

"You know they've accused me before of rape, but they're never going to believe you," one officer allegedly told one woman.

In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The law was supposed to create zero-tolerance policies for sexual abuse in U.S. prisons. But according to Guggino, the law meant nothing besides some signs on the walls.

"There's no safe outlet for you to go to speak about this if it's happening to you because everybody is hiding and protecting one another," Guggino says. "PREA, that's a joke."

The lawsuit alleges that, in addition to direct threats from guards, female inmates who reported sexual abuse were transferred to a local county jail in a systematic effort to cover up complaints and circumvent PREA.

"An example of that would be the 2018 audit that was conducted at Coleman where the audit itself mentions that they were not able to interview victims of sexual abuse because they had been transferred to the county jail," says Bryan Busch, the attorney representing the 14 women. "So there's nobody there to interview for PREA violations because they've all been shipped to more secure facilities as punishment for reporting any sort of misconduct."

Coleman management was negligent, the lawsuit argues, in allowing correctional officers who admitted to investigators that they were sexual offenders to continue abusing inmates, escape criminal prosecution, and in most cases retire with full benefits. 

Many of the women in the lawsuit say they now suffer from anxiety, depression, PTSD, and intense fear of being left alone with men.

The BOP is already under more scrutiny than usual, thanks to financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein's August death in a federal jail. Epstein's high-profile death put a spotlight on the dysfunctional federal prison system.

For the past several years, crippling staff shortages at federal prisons have led to auxiliary staff, such as nurses and cooks, being pressed into guard duty.

A report released in January by investigators for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform concluded that misconduct by senior BOP officials is "largely tolerated or ignored altogether." 

Last year the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General reported, in a rather impressive bit of bureaucratic understatement, that the BOP "has not been strategic in its management of female inmates, and BOP's programming and policies may not fully consider their needs."

A nationwide inmate survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2011–2012 an estimated 4 percent of state and federal prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported being sexually victimized by another inmate or by a member of the staff. By 2015, after stricter reporting requirements went into effect, allegations of sexual assault in prisons had tripled.

In a statement to Reason, a BOP spokesperson says the agency "takes allegations of staff misconduct seriously and, consistent with national policy, refers all allegations for investigation." 

"The allegations regarding staff misconduct at the Coleman Federal Prison Camp were properly referred and addressed consistent with Bureau policy and applicable federal regulations," the statement continues. "The Bureau is unable to comment further at this time."

The Miami Herald reports that the Bureau of Prisons denied its Freedom of Information Act requests for the personnel files of the officers named in the suit, saying it would be an "unwarranted invasion of privacy." Coleman officials also refused the newspaper's request to visit the plaintiffs who remain incarcerated there. 

Guggino was released from federal custody earlier this week, which is why she was free to speak out. Seven of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are still incarcerated.

"It's forever changed my life, and not in a good way," Guggino says. "I understand that I made mistakes to go to prison, but those mistakes should not have led me to acquire all of this other stuff that I'm going to have to deal with for the remainder of my life. We should have to be punished for the things that we do, but the experiences that we have [in prison] should not hinder us further from recovery and from becoming better people and making a life for ourselves. It's just terrible, and I wish people would become aware of what's going on."

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  1. But is it cruel AND unusual punishment?

    It has to be both or judges wont do anything about it.

  2. It seems this all stems from not admitting that there is no difference between men and women, and combining all prisoners in one huge facility the size of New York.

    1. The women and men are segregated. It is the male guards who are the abusers, not male prisoners.

    2. Lawsuit Alleges ‘Rampant’ Sexual Abuse at Federal Prison

      Investigators find men’s prisons 100% sexual abuse free.

  3. An example of that would be the 2018 audit that was conducted at Coleman where the audit itself mentions that they were not able to interview victims of sexual abuse because they had been transferred to the county jail…

    Thorough audit.

  4. If you don’t want to be raped in prison, don’t get thrown in prison.

    Also, once again the women are the ones bitching about stuff that the men have had to deal with for a long time and suddenly it’s a crisis.

    1. So- the appropriate punishment for shoplifting is: rape?

      1. You don’t go to federal prison for shoplifting, the punishment as policy isn’t rape, and for every woman raped for whatever crime they committed odds are that one man got raped for his crime and another got stabbed.

        “Prison life difficult, men imprisoned at a rate ~9:1 relative to women, women hardest hit.”

      2. The “shoplifting” case in question:

        A USF criminology student is still being held in jail without bail for aiding a serial robber.

        Senior Kara Guggino was arrested Friday after police saw her sitting in the passenger seat of 26-year-old Yener Vahit Belli’s Jeep near a Shell gas station on Falkenburg Road in Tampa. Belli, who police nicknamed the “hoodie bandit,” has garnered a reputation for wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses while allegedly robbing small convenience stores’ cash registers, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO).

        HCSO public information officer Debbie Carter said Belli has robbed up to 10 Tampa convenience stores since Oct. 12, three of which can be connected to Guggino.

        “(Police) had developed information as to the identity of the gentleman responsible,” Carter said. “(Guggino) was in the vehicle when we made the arrest.”

        Carter said Guggino will face three separate counts of armed robbery, while Belli was charged with 18 counts of armed robbery.

        A news release from the sheriff’s office states that the suspects robbed a Beverage Castle in Brandon, a Chevron in Seffner, a Hess station in Valrico and a Handy Food Store in Tampa. The release also said the suspect was armed with “a handgun described as an ‘Uzi’ type.”

        Guggino and Belli are both being held without bail in the Orient Road Jail

        Also, potentially another story that may or may not be related:

        Newly filed court records shed light on how Belniak came to be speeding up U.S. 19 that afternoon.
        Kara Guggino, in a June deposition, told attorneys that she and Belniak had spent Christmas Eve shopping and visiting with her family. The two had been friends since meeting at the Ybor City bar Amphitheater, where she was a bartender, and they had one big thing in common: a drug habit.

        Late on Christmas Eve, Guggino said, she and Belniak met a man at an empty gas station to buy cocaine and then snorted two lines apiece off a CD case in the parking lot. They stopped to buy wine, then headed north to Belniak’s house in Spring Hill. They did more cocaine on the way, she said, with Guggino, 27, holding the CD case to Belniak’s face as he drove.

        On Christmas morning, they headed back to Hillsborough in his truck, but she was driving because he still seemed impaired, Guggino said. Then they parted ways.
        Later that day on U.S. 19, prosecutors said, Belniak was going between 75 and 85 mph when he struck the Tahoe.

        Gerard Bassi, 51, was dead at the scene. Denise, 50, died in surgery, and Linda McWilliams, 66, was taken off life support about a week later. Ray McWilliams was injured but survived. His health began failing this year, and he died in March at age 68.

        Rape isn’t an appropriate punishment for her crimes and officers should be held accountable and dismissed for abuse of their authority, but I wouldn’t say her behavior is consistent with someone undeserving of bad things, like rape, occurring to them.

      3. appropriate punishment

        Where did you come up with appropriate? Are you trying to imply that nobody, male or female, has ever been raped in prison?

    2. Also, once again the women are the ones bitching about stuff that the men have had to deal with for a long time and suddenly it’s a crisis.

      This stance in regard to the ‘tripled’ number blows my mind. There are already ~10X as many men in prison so a tripling of any number disparately impacts them. It’s like saying the number of roofied drinks went up 3 fold so we really need to protect men and keep them safe from an epidemic of roofied drinks.

    3. You ARE the worst, sparky!

  5. But if we eliminated sex abuses in prisons, what would the kindly cops do to threaten (“don’t drop the soap”) suspected perps with?
    Every cop show on tv revels in these kinds of threats.

    1. But if we eliminated sex abuses in prisons, what would the kindly cops do to threaten (“don’t drop the soap”) suspected perps with?
      Every cop show on tv revels in these kinds of threats.

      Cops have nothing to do with it. Inasmuch as I believe in such a thing, it’s the patriarchy. Female sexual assault victims get a hashtag movement and believed at all costs, male sexual assault victims are played off to laugh tracks in children’s shows.

  6. We should have to be punished for the things that we do, but the experiences that we have [in prison] should not hinder us further from recovery and from becoming better people and making a life for ourselves.

    ^^^^^THIS^^^^^

    People shouldn’t come out of prison worse than they went in.

  7. Wait, wait! I remember a study reported by reason that found rape less likely to occur in prison than on an American college campus.

  8. The situation is much worse in the youth detention system than in adult prisons. When sexual assault among incarcerated youth was studied in my state a few years ago, it was found that the rate at which youth in detention were either victims or perpetrators of sexual assault was close to 100% in some facilities.

    1. Except the lawsuit described in the article is not about prisoners raping prisoners. It’s about male guards raping female inmates at a federal women’s prison.

  9. The obvious solution to this is that male prisoners should be guarded by male officers, and female prisoners should be guarded by female officers. That would probably reduce sexual abuse of prisoners by staff by about 90%, and would eliminate male-on-female rape of prisoners. The courts have unfortunately prioritized non-discrimination in hiring above doing that. The sex of guards ought to be considered a “bona fide occupational qualification”.

    1. Wasn’t it recently shown that women are more likely to commit sexual assault in prisons as either guards or inmates? Your solution may not change much, but it makes sense either way.

      The problem with this instance is an issue all institutions like these face where unless you have someone that shows visible signs of assault you can’t really do anything. Consensual acts occur and unless you do swabs of both parties junk you can’t tell who did what with who. You can fire an employee, but only because you would be able to determine that the act of sex happened and such an act is against the rules. A guard having sexual encounters with an inmate isn’t rape unless the act was forced. Inmates allege all kinds of things. If you put one of these women on a stand the defense attorney is going to instantly point out that the woman was in this facility due to her not acting in a truthful manner in the first place and carve out that picture to the jury.

      Having the same gender guards may just make the prison’s job easier and may not benefit inmates.

      I think Robocop would be beneficial here, but that’s more jobs lost to automation.

      1. “A guard having sexual encounters with an inmate isn’t rape unless the act was forced.”

        Given the power imbalance between guards and inmates, I think a reasonable argument can be made that true consent is not possible in such a situation.

        The very nature of the relationship between prison guards and prison inmates is such that all interactions between guards and inmates are suffused with an element of coercion in one form or another.

        1. The same is true of most sex between inmates. What the corrections establishment calls “consensual” is usually acquiescence under credible threat.

  10. Isn’t it interesting how in the supposedly most “secure” outfit around; so “secure” in fact no one seems to be able to easily escape or go unnoticed long enough to work at escaping. Where security camera’s, multiple guards, and eye’s are on you at all times.

    Such an events could ever happen.

    Pull the tapes – do the tapes show one guard leaving with one inmate or even the possibility of said event happening. If so; maybe it’s time to have at least 2-guards (not statically partnered) to EVERY off-camera location.

    One would think with all the technology we have today; that cheap technology would be used to eliminate any doubt as to what goes on behind prison walls.

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