The small town of Forks, Washington, will pay $1 million to settle a lawsuit, first reported by Reason last year, filed by the family of a young Native American woman who committed suicide in jail after being harassed by a guard with a long history of misconduct complaints.
That guard, John Gray, would later be convicted of sexually assaulting four other incarcerated women. But when Kimberly Bender—a 23-year-old Quileute tribal member struggling with drug addiction and depression—tried to report Gray's misconduct, the Forks jail determined her complaint was "unsubstantiated."
Bender was in and out of the Forks jail between July and December of 2019. While she was incarcerated there Gray began harassing her, according to the lawsuit. He 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 said. "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."
On November 16, Bender attempted suicide by slicing one of her forearms with a razor. She reported Gray's harassment while in the hospital, and again when she was returned to jail.
On December 4, 2019, Bender hanged herself in her cell. Her family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last October, arguing that the city of Forks negligence and indifference violated Bender's constitutional rights and federal standards to prevent prison rapes.
"Kimberly's life mattered," Bender's lawyers, Gabe Galanda and Ryan Dreveskracht, says in a statement to Reason. "Like many, she suffered affliction and addiction. Her hurt and suffering as a young Indigenous woman made her more, not less, human. Nobody in the City of Forks' custody and care should ever be dehumanized. Kimberly's family hopes Forks will take greater efforts to honor and protect the lives of incarcerated women and Indigenous people."
Before Gray was hired to work at the Forks jail in 2019, he was a prison guard at the Washington State Department of Corrections Clallam Bay Corrections Center. 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. However, he won his job back through union arbitration and his punishment was reduced to a 15-day suspension.
An investigation by local news outlet King 5 found that Gray had a long history of misconduct complaints against him, including from fellow employees who accused him of making vulgar, bigoted, and sexual comments toward them and incarcerated people under his watch.
"I physically couldn't get out of bed because I knew this person was there—that Gray was going to be there. The thought of that was exhausting and hopeless," Kimberly Seward, who worked with the Gray between 2013 and 2018, told King 5. "It was extremely uncomfortable. I'd say, toxic."
Five Clallam inmates also accused Gray of sexual misconduct, but those complaints, too, were dismissed as unsubstantiated.
After Bender's death, Gray was quietly fired and went back to his old job at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center. In fact, he got a raise. The return was short-lived. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office began investigating him for separate rape allegations. He was arrested in May of last 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.
Gray pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 months in prison. He served 13 months before being released early. His relatively short sentence was due to a law passed by the Washington State Legislature in 1999 that, while creating a specific crime for sexual assault by a correctional officer, set lighter penalties compared to cases involving civilians.
Bender left behind a son.