The family of a 23-year-old woman who committed suicide in a rural Washington jail says she tried to report sexual harassment by a guard, but her complaint was dismissed. Months later, that same correctional officer was sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting four other women.
In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed last week, the family of Kimberly Bender alleges that officials at the city jail in Forks, Washington, were negligent in preventing Bender from committing suicide and from being tormented by a guard with a known misconduct record, violating Bender's constitutional rights and federal standards to prevent prison rapes.
Not only that, but the lawsuit says that the jail tried to hide her sexual harassment complaint from state investigators.
"It appears they swept it all under the rug," says Ryan Dreveskracht, one of the attorneys representing Bender's family.
The Forks Police Department, which also oversees the city jail, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Bender, a 23-year-old Quileute tribal member, was in and out of the Forks jail between July and December of 2019, struggling with drug addiction and depression.
It was while she was incarcerated there that former corrections officer John Gray began harassing her, according to the suit. Gray allegedly tormented Bender at night, leering at her, making "vile" comments, and frequently waking her up.
Bender, "struggling with heroin withdrawal, was unable to sleep, rest, or relax because of Defendant Gray," the lawsuit says. "In the middle of the night, when Kimberly tried to sleep, Defendant Gray perched himself in the doorway of her jail cell, preying over her and sexually tormenting her. Kimberly felt terrified for her safety at all times and, eventually, of no worth."
Gray previously worked at the Washington State Department of Corrections Clallam Bay Corrections Center, but according to disciplinary records, the prison moved to fire him in 2018 for making inappropriate comments during a training session on the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), a federal law that sets standards for preventing and reporting sexual assaults in jails and prisons.
A deputy director at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center found that Gray "made sexually charged comments and sounds such as, 'Here we go' and 'oooh…oh yeah baby…mmmmm'" during a video portion of the training that depicted a woman conducting a pat-down search on another woman.
As Reason has previously reported, PREA is largely toothless. Since the reporting rules went into effect in 2012, reports of sexual assaults in prisons and jails have dramatically increased, especially at local and county jails. "PREA, that's a joke," one former federal inmate who sued the federal Bureau of Prisons told Reason. A Justice Department Civil Rights Division report released last year found that sexual assaults and harassment of inmates at Florida's largest women's prison are "severe and prevalent throughout the prison."
Whether Gray's firing was upheld or reversed through union arbitration isn't clear, but in any case, he was hired as a corrections officer at the Forks City Jail in April 2019. The reason Gray could jump to a new corrections job with little apparent difficulty is that Forks, a small town of about 3,900 people best known as the setting of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, needed more correctional officers and couldn't afford to be choosy. According to the lawsuit, the jail had a practice of leaving only one guard to monitor both male and female inmates during shifts.
"It's a small jail," Dreveskracht says. "A lot of times these small facilities are an afterthought, underfunded and understaffed."
After violating her parole for possessing marijuana-related paraphernalia, Bender was sent back to the Forks jail on November 5, 2019, where the lawsuit says Gray began harassing her again. On November 16, Bender attempted suicide by slicing one of her forearms with a razor.
While she was in the hospital for treatment, Bender reported Gray's harassment to a tribal police officer, which was captured on body camera.
According to the lawsuit, Bender was released from the hospital and sent back to the jail, along with specific medical instructions, including "needs all weapons removed from her access and needs [sic] watched for suicidal gestures and attempts."
At the jail, she was interviewed again and described Gray's behavior over the previous four months: "Pretty much sexual fucking activity in some way somehow. He's always trying to get around the cameras."
"Last week I was still detoxing and he was coming to my door," she said. "I won't go to the bathroom when he's on. It's just fucking uncomfortable."
The Forks police officer who interviewed Bender wrote in a report that, "from my training and experience I believe that Bender is telling the truth for multiple reasons."
However, according to the lawsuit, Forks Police Chief Mike Rowley, who also oversees the city jail, issued an internal investigation report a day later, on November 18, that concluded that the misconduct allegations against Gray were "unsubstantiated," meaning they did not find evidence to support Bender's allegations or that Gray had violated any jail policies.
Although the jail did not substantiate Bender's complaint, Gray's probationary employment at the Forks City Jail was quietly terminated. Bender was allegedly never told that anyone believed her, and because the complaint was unsubstantiated, it would not be a black mark on Gray's career.
On December 4, 2019, Bender was found dead in her cell with a bedsheet tied around her neck.
The lawsuit alleges that Rowley then neglected to disclose to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, which was investigating Bender's death, that 18 days prior to her suicide Bender had reported being sexually harassed while in custody, or that the jail had investigated the allegations.
The Peninsula Daily News reported on December 13, 2019, that Jefferson County Sheriff Joe Nole "said Bender did not give any indication that she was suicidal and she was not on suicide watch."
It's an extraordinary statement, given that Bender was hospitalized for a suicide attempt a month earlier.
Gray, meanwhile, went back to his old job at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office began investigating him for a separate rape allegation, and he was arrested in May of this year and charged with sexually assaulting four other female inmates at the Forks City Jail during his brief tenure there. Two of the women were heroin addicts, according to the lawsuit. Gray pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 months in the custody of his previous employer.
Gray was not charged with harassing Bender, as she was deceased. She left behind a young son.
"She was withdrawing from opioids and actively suicidal," Dreveskracht says. "She needed help, and she got the opposite."