DENVER — A federal judge was so appalled that a former Colorado prison guard accused of raping an inmate was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor that he imposed $1.3 million in damages in the inmate's civil lawsuit – a message advocates hope will pressure corrections officials nationwide to protect prisoners from sexual misconduct.
"It sends a strong message to the agency and also individual correctional officers that there's not going to be immunity to violating the constitutional rights of people they're required to safeguard," said Brenda Smith, a member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.
The Denver Women's Correctional Facility inmate said the former guard coerced her into a five-month sexual relationship, and sodomized her when she began refusing his advances, according to court documents.
The former guard pleaded guilty in 2008 to misdemeanor unlawful sexual contact and was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
U.S. District Judge David Ebel (eh-BELL') in June called the plea deal "simply egregious," and said the man and some fellow corrections officers "are in need of a strong punitive award in this case to cure them of their disrespect for the law." The former guard didn't return a written message seeking comment.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated in 2007 that 38,600 inmates of both genders in federal and state prisons had experienced sexual misconduct by staff. That equals about 2.9 percent of the national prison population.
Inmate advocates hope the Colorado judge's ruling, as well as Michigan's decision in July to pay $100 million to settle claims by 500 female inmates who alleged sexual misconduct by officers, will be a deterrent.
"It'll have an impact in Colorado but also nationally," said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's National Prison Project.
Brian Lathen is a lawyer in Salem, Ore., representing four inmates who say they were victims of sexual misconduct by Oregon state prison staff.
"I hope that it makes all the prisons and women's facilities around the nation start to better supervise their employees," Lathen said.
At least three other female inmates in Colorado have civil lawsuits pending in federal court that allege they were forced by state Department of Corrections employees to perform sex acts. Each seeks $150 million in damages.
The three men accused in the lawsuits received either probation or deferred sentences on criminal state charges and had to register as sex offenders. They no longer work for the department.
The Department of Corrections has "seen it happen time and time again," said Andrea Blancset, an attorney handling the cases. "When there are criminal charges, they don't go to prison."
Department spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti said the department can and does push for criminal charges in such cases.
As for the former employees' criminal sentences, she said, "That's the judges' and courts' decisions."
"What their sentence is has nothing to do with what the department's position is. We have a no-tolerance policy on sexual misconduct," Sanguinetti said.
The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, created by Congress under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, recommended in June that prisoners be able to report sexual misconduct to someone outside the prison system.
They also urged Congress to change parts of the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act, which requires prisoners to prove they were physically injured before they can receive compensatory damages and to exhaust all internal administrative remedies before going to court.
The act was meant to discourage prisoners from filing frivolous lawsuits. But Winter said the requirements are extreme for sexually abused inmates who fear retaliation for reporting they were attacked.
The U.S. attorney general's office has a year to issue rules based on the commission's report.
"We know sexual violence is seriously underreported," said Smith, the commission member. "The scope of the problem is significant and something that should not be tolerated in civil society."
On the Net:
National Prison Rape Elimination Commission report: http://nprec.us/publication/download