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Guards who sexually abuse inmates haven't been punished harshly enough, DOJ memo says

The Justice has released a report on sexual assault cases by guards against federal prisoners.
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The Justice has released a report on sexual assault cases by guards against federal prisoners.

Federal prosecutors must use "all available tools" to hold federal corrections employees who sexually abuse women in their custody accountable — including a new law that carries a penalty of as many as 15 years behind bars, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco instructed in a new memo late Wednesday to Justice Department officials and obtained by NPR.

"The Department's obligation to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those in our custody is enduring," Monaco wrote.

Her directive follows a high-level review this year that uncovered hundreds of complaints about sexual misconduct by Bureau of Prisons employees over the past five years, but only 45 federal prosecutions during that same period.

"The recurrence of this egregious conduct over multiple facilities poses serious concerns," according to the review findings.

The working group identified weak or nonexistent administrative discipline against some prison workers — and flaws in how prosecutors assessed reports of abuse.

In one case in Florida, authorities declined to prosecute corrections officer Jimmy Highsmith after first receiving tips about him in 2010, only to reverse course years later. In March 2022, a judge sentenced Highsmith to 48 months in prison for repeated sexual misconduct against one incarcerated woman over nine months.

The report stressed the need to prevent sexual misconduct in the first place – highlighting recommendations to develop an early warning system by taking notice of officers who routinely show up late after prison rounds; beefing up the presence of security cameras to plug "blind spots" inside prison facilities; and raising pay for wardens who work in 29 prisons for women across the United States.

Pay has been tied to the security level of a prison. Facilities for women are designated as low or medium-security compared to higher level designations for prisons for men.

The working group urged the Bureau of Prisons to develop a hotline that incarcerated women and their families and friends could use to report sexual abuse and to stress the availability of confidential reporting. That's critical since many women in prison face threats of retaliation, including threats by wrongdoers to limit women's visits with their children.

The group also recommended that moving women who report abuse into restricted housing units should be a "last resort." Often, those women are transferred into special housing units, where they lose access to phone calls, commissary access and other privileges, which can add to their trauma.

Finally, the group said, the Bureau of Prisons should rethink who and how it investigates complaints of sexual abuse by women behind bars. Currently the prisons assign officers to take initial statements who may be friends or colleagues of the alleged perpetrators, raising questions about conflicts of interest.

Instead, the Justice Department should consider creating a special unit or task force of sex crimes investigators, a kind of special victims' unit that could include agents from the FBI or the Inspector General, and align with how many large cities already investigate sexual abuse.

The new report tread gingerly on an issue of ongoing deliberation: whether women who report abuse and agree to testify against their abusers should be eligible for reduced prison sentences or U.S. visas. The study said prosecutors and the BOP should make case-by-case assessments about those issues, and said they may be best suited after a case or investigation has ended.

The working group said the authorities who initially prosecuted the women should be consulted on any such step, as well as the victims of the underlying conviction.

Survivors of abuse inside a prison in Dublin, Calif., where five Bureau of Prisons employees have been charged with crimes, including a warden and a chaplain, have been pressing for compassionate release.

"They were not sentenced to being raped in prison, and not only were they raped, they turned around at great cost and cooperated with the investigation of this warden and this chaplain," said Kevin Ring, who advocates for people in prison and their families. "And you're going to say we have no power to give them relief, that they're supposed to heal inside a prison?"

The report said Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters is considering whether to modify current prison policy on compassionate release.

The working group, led by principal associate deputy attorney general Marshall Miller, met with formerly incarcerated women who survived abuse in prison, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Centro Legal De La Raza, and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.