The federal Bureau of Prison's deeply flawed, backlogged system for investigating sexual assault fails to protect female inmates from rape while protecting employees who commit sexual assault, according to a bipartisan report issued today by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI).
The PSI investigation found that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has failed to implement a federal law to prevent prison rapes, and that long delays in investigating complaints have led to a backlog of more than 8,000 internal affairs cases, leading to failures to hold employees accountable. The report says that these management failures "allowed serious, repeated sexual abuse in at least four facilities to go undetected."
"BOP's internal affairs practices have failed to hold employees accountable, and multiple admitted sexual abusers were not criminally prosecuted as a result," the report concludes. "Further, for a decade, BOP failed to respond to this abuse or implement agency-wide reforms."
Overall, the PSI investigation found that BOP employees sexually abused female inmates in at least two-thirds of federal women's prisons over the last decade. However, the report focused on four prisons—MCC New York, MDC Brooklyn, FCC Coleman, and FCI Dublin—where it says multiple BOP employees abused multiple women.
"Our findings are deeply disturbing and demonstrate, in my view, that the BOP is failing
systemically to prevent, detect, and address sexual abuse of prisoners by its own employees," Sen. Jon Ossoff (D–Ga.), the subcommittee chair, said in his opening remarks at a Senate hearing today on the investigation.
Briane Moore testified at the hearing about her time in FCP Alderson, a federal prison where she was sexually abused by a BOP captain.
"The captain had total power over me, and he knew that," Moore said. "He knew I had no control and could not say no. The captain made sure I knew that and made sure I knew he could make things worse for me. Even before his threat, I knew that if I reported him, I could be placed in solitary or shipped out to another prison even further away from my family. The prison system calls this 'protection' because it separates us from the abuser. But it is punishment. It is retaliation. I saw it happen to other women in prison, and I knew that I would be punished unless and I endured sexual abuse. I had to not help myself to help myself. After an investigation began, the captain resigned and was prosecuted. He pled guilty."
In February, an investigation by the Associated Press into FCI Dublin, a federal women's prison in California, found "a permissive and toxic culture at the Bay Area lockup, enabling years of sexual misconduct by predatory employees and cover-ups that have largely kept the abuse out of the public eye." Since then, both the former warden and prison chaplain, among other employees, have been found guilty of sexually abusing incarcerated women.
In 2019, 14 current and former inmates of FCC Coleman, a federal prison complex in Florida, filed a lawsuit saying guards subjected them to unending sexual abuse and threats. The suit also claimed that prison leadership 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 said.
"I was incarcerated for almost eight years, and I saw it at pretty much every single institution I was at," one of the plaintiffs, Kara Guggino, told Reason. "I was at maybe six different places, and this was going on everywhere. But it was by far the worst at Coleman."
The federal government later settled that lawsuit for at least $1.5 million.
According to the PSI report, congressional investigators "obtained copies of non-public sworn, compelled statements from officers at FCC Coleman, wherein the officers admitted to sexual abuse of female detainees in graphic detail." However, the Justice Department Office of Inspector General (OIG) declined to investigate those officers, and they were never prosecuted.
It may seem strange that a government employee can admit to criminal conduct in a sworn interview and not face prosecution, but as the PSI report explains, the Supreme Court ruled in a 1967 case, Garrity v. New Jersey, that when a government employee is compelled to answer questions under oath as a condition of employment, those statements can't be used to prosecute him or her.
By compelling BOP prison guards to admit to criminal conduct, BOP internal affairs investigators actually shield them from prosecution.
"There is no world in which we can say this is a good outcome," the Justice Department Inspector General told the PSI subcommittee, according to the report. "These individuals knew they have been compelled and could retire and resign and spill to [BOP] OIA and basically have immunity in some cases for engaging in sexual activity with multiple inmates. It is a terrible outcome."
Ostensibly, incarcerated people are protected from sexual assault by not only the Constitution and criminal law, but the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). The PREA, passed in 2003, was supposed to create zero-tolerance policies for sexual abuse in U.S. prisons. However, in practice, PREA is toothless. As the report notes, at FCI Dublin "the former PREA compliance officer, responsible for training supervisors on the PREA requirements and coordinating the PREA audit, was convicted of sexually abusing female prisoners on December 8, 2022." Both Dublin and Coleman were found to be in compliance with PREA standards.
The PSI report is the latest in a string of congressional investigations into endemic corruption and misconduct inside the beleaguered federal prison system. This fall, the PSI released the results of an investigation into widespread corruption and abuse at a federal prison complex in Atlanta. Congressional investigators found that senior leadership at both the complex and the BOP had been aware of the problems for years but failed to act.
Ossoff, Sen. Mike Braun (R–Ind.), and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D–Ill.) introduced the Federal Prison Oversight Act in September. The bill would require the Department of Justice's Inspector General to conduct detailed inspections of each of the BOP's 122 facilities and, more significantly, create an independent Justice Department ombudsman to investigate complaints.
"Given the fear of retaliation by survivors of sexual abuse, the apparent apathy by senior BOP officials at the facility, regional office, and headquarters levels, and severe shortcomings in the investigative practices implemented by BOP's Office of Internal Affairs and the Department of Justice Inspector General," Ossoff said, "I suspect the extent of abuse is significantly wider."
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