A disposable population
How prison employees get away with sexually assaulting inmates
by Chris Cotelesse, The Renegade Press
March 30, 2015
Barbara tried to push James Johnson away, “but he would just act like she was playing with him,” according to Sergeant Brandee Thomas’ report from July 2011. Barbara said Johnson bruised her legs when he had sexual intercourse with her and gave her 10 tablets of hydrocodone, promising at least 10 more and an ice cream cake for her birthday two days later.He had been touching her since May of that year, penetrating her vagina with his fingers and rubbing her clitoris. He kept her quiet by threatening to tell her fiance and making presents of prescription drugs and candy—even asking her friend Tina and others to make sure she stayed silent.
“[H]e would get mad if I wouldn’t let him,” Barbara said in a written statement. “Then when I would he would finger me real hard in the lower bathroom” of her cell block at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in Shelby County.
Johnson, a former KCIW guard, confessed to some of the crimes, and a confidential informant provided recordings of Johnson discussing others. He eventually pleaded guilty to sexually abusing three inmates, including Barbara, and felony drug trafficking. But under the terms of the plea agreement—which the prosecutor would not discuss with Renegade Press—he’ll avoid any jail time and the most severe charges will be dismissed if he follows the rules during his seven-year probation.
Efforts to reach Johnson were unsuccessful, and Barbara declined to comment on the details of her abuse. Renegade Press omitted Barbara’s last name to protect her anonymity.
Johnson could have faced a felony rape charge and been required to register as a sex offender, but his charges were watered down. Paul Wright, founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center in Lake Worth, Fl., said light charges and “sweetheart deals” are the nationwide standard for prosecuting prison employees who are accused of sexually abusing inmates.
Wright has been advocating prison reform for 25 years, suing prisons for public records and publishing reports on the darkest truths of the United States prison industrial complex.
The last anthology he co-wrote in 2008 preceded investigations by national media outlets into the corporations that profit from privately-run prisons.
He said local authorities cut deals in staff sexual abuse cases to protect their reputations. They avoid public trials rather than air the sordid details of institutional abuse and conceal “a de facto prison policy of sexually assaulting inmates.”
“When nothing is done about it and it continues year after year after year, it’s not an unusual conclusion to draw that this is how [prisons] do things,” Wright told Renegade Press. “Prison in this country is really about breaking and destroying people.”
The Department of Justice estimated that prison employees were accused in 4,300 acts of sexual abuse and sexual harassment against inmates from 2009 to 2011. A separate 2011-2012 survey suggests that up to ten times as many acts go unreported, but Wright said the statistics understate how completely prison guards control the daily lives of inmates and the extent to which they can abuse their power.
“They don’t just rape a person once; they do it a whole bunch of times,” he said. “They don’t just rape one person; they rape a whole bunch of people.”
Prisons and police departments dismiss most allegations for lacking evidence. The cells, walls and gates that separate inmates from the public and each other also hide crimes from witnesses and security cameras. Victims usually have only their own sworn statements as evidence that they were assaulted.
But even when allegations were substantiated by prison administrators, 44 percent of staff involved were prosecuted. Only one percent of substantiated allegations ended in conviction, and 15 percent of staff involved remained employed at correctional facilities, according to the 2009-2011 report.
Wright said abuse is seldom punished because inmates are “a disposable population.” The general public ignores prisoners’ claims as victims because of their status as criminals. Neither voters nor their elected representatives care about them, he said, and as a result, national efforts to stop sexual abuse in prisons are only half-hearted.
Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, receiving praise from the United Nations Committee against Torture, but after more than a decade, prison employees are still hardly held accountable for serious and sometimes violent crimes.
Among other things, the law provides grant money for training staff to prevent, investigate and respond to sexual abuse. States are also now encouraged to automatically terminate employees who engage in sexual abuse, but the penalty for states that fail to comply cannot exceed 5 percent of the federal funding they receive from the Department of Justice.
Only two states have adopted all of the Justice Department’s guidelines. Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Texas and Utah have refused to do so. No states have yet been penalized.
Wright and the Human Rights Defense Center have fought to strengthen the law since 2006, when the Department of Justice began developing the regulations. In a 2011 letter to the Justice Department, Wright criticized Congress for limiting the new rape prevention measures to those that do “not impose substantial additional costs” upon state budgets.
“Congress…placed cost considerations above efforts to stop the sexual abuse and rape of prisoners. Consequently, the DOJ’s proposed rules reflect the fact that we get only what we are willing to pay for,” Wright wrote.
Meanwhile, members of the most vulnerable population, inmates who are mentally ill, were up to five times more likely to say they were victimized by staff, according to the 2011-2012 survey. Incarcerated juveniles also reported higher rates of sexual victimization. In some juvenile detention facilities, such as the Paulding Regional Youth Detention Center in Georgia and the Circleville Juvenile Correctional Facility in Ohio, nearly one-third of the youths reported being sexually abused by staff members.
So far, facilities are reformed only after something horrible is discovered. Circleville has since adopted a number of progressive policies, and Paulding closed its doors in 2013 after the Department of Justice published its latest report on juvenile facilities. However, at the time, senior officials in the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice told WSB-TV that the facility was being closed to save money.
Most jurisdictions resolve sexual abuse allegations against state and municipal employees as quietly as they can. In Shelby County, Ky., Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Melanie Carroll spared Johnson a 36-year maximum sentence despite substantial evidence. Carroll negotiated with Johnson’s attorney in closed meetings for three years, delaying a jury trial twice in order to extend negotiations. And when she offered the deal on Aug. 18, 2014, the sum of her years-long efforts existed in two sentences.
“The [Commonwealth] has no objection to [the felony drug charges] being diverted for 5 years. [The sexual abuse charges] to be conditionally discharged for 2 years,” according to the Commonwealth’s offer on a plea of guilty.
Carroll’s rationale for the deal she made with Johnson may never be disclosed, because she isn’t required to give one. And she refuses to talk about it.
“I’m not going to discuss any of the decision-making process that went into the plea agreement,” she told Renegade Press.
She also declined to discuss how she argued the case to a grand jury and the resulting charges of misdemeanor sexual abuse. Sexual intercourse with an inmate, as described in the report that Thomas prepared for KCIW, is a felony offense in Kentucky, but Carroll deferred to the jury’s indictment accusing Johnson of “sexual contact,” i.e., digital stimulation of Barbara’s vagina.
“Those were the charges that suit the facts of the case as decided by the grand jury,” Carroll said.
Grand jury proceedings are sealed by state law, and the Kentucky State Police Department denied requests made by Renegade Press for transcripts of witness interviews, saying the records are part of an ongoing investigation. However, Kentucky State Police could not cite a single arrest they have made as a result of the interviews in more than three and a half years since conducting them.
The evidence that Carroll submitted to a Shelby County court, the only information available to the public, says that Barbara gave two additional interviews after telling Thomas that Johnson had had sexual intercourse with her.
KCIW Capt. Kevin Dean spoke with Barbara the same day as Thomas, but he never filed a report in the case against Johnson. Dean’s interview is mentioned only in a letter from the Kentucky Department of Corrections notifying Johnson that he had been terminated.
The only other report of the crimes was filed by Kentucky State Police Detective Richard “Mitch” Harris, but Dean set the course of that police investigation by defining the crimes before Harris had asked any questions.
Within minutes of Barbara’s statements to Thomas, Dean was on the phone with Harris, briefing him on the details of the case. He told Harris that Johnson had been suspended three months earlier for allegedly working under the influence of drugs, although he was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing by an internal investigation. Afterward, Dean convinced another inmate to wear a concealed microphone during conversations with Johnson, who was recorded talking about sex acts with prisoners and bringing drugs into the prison.
Then, Dean “advised that [Johnson] had not penetrated [Barbara] with his penis; he was using his fingers and kissing her,” according to Harris’ report.
That’s the last mention of sexual intercourse in the court documents. Harris interviewed Barbara and then Johnson, but if he asked either of them about sexual intercourse or the threats Johnson allegedly made, then he didn’t include it in his report.
Harris charged Johnson with misdemeanor sexual abuse, and those were the charges Carroll asked the grand jury to consider.
Harris and Dean have since been fired from the Kentucky State Police Department and KCIW, respectively, for undisclosed reasons. In September, Harris was the subject of an internal investigation for allegedly collecting overtime pay for shifts that he didn’t work.
But as long as local authorities are able to investigate and prosecute these cases without oversight or transparency, Wright said, prisoners will continue to be sexually abused. And he’s not optimistic about reform.
“No one really cares about the fact that it’s happening to prisoners,” Wright said. “Just like [prisoners are] a disposable population, [they’re] also an invisible population.”
Chris Cotelese is a web developer, social media director, and writer for the Renegade Press. His work has appeared in the Plain Dealer, the Columbus Dispatch, the Akron Beacon Journal, Crain’s Cleveland Business, the Vindicator and the Warren Tribune-Chronicle.
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