Feds Slam Sexual Misconduct

An 18-month investigation finds an "unconstitutional pattern" in women's prisons in Arizona

Federal investigators say they have found an "unconstitutional pattern or practice of sexual misconduct" in Arizona women's prisons, and the U.S. Department of Justice may sue the state over it.

Assistant U.S. attorney general Deval Patrick directed a study of women's prisons that lasted for 18 months, from February 1995 until last August.

In a 10-page letter to Governor J. Fife Symington III, Patrick complained that the state Department of Corrections had not cooperated with the investigation and had denied U.S. attorneys access to any women's facilities.

The letter, dated August 8, was obtained by New Times under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Patrick wrote that despite that lack of access, federal investigators found evidence that "at least 14 female inmates have been subjected to sexual assaults and other nonconsensual sexual behavior by guards, including rape, sodomy, touching and fondling, masturbation, urination, removal of clothing, nude dancing, indecent exposure, and offensive sexual comments."

Patrick stated that these conclusions were based on documents supplied by DOC itself, as well as inmate affidavits and other evidence. The letter criticizes DOC's screening and training of DOC employees, the department's handling of inmate complaints and the inconsistency of punishment for employees who commit such offenses.

"These conclusions," Patrick writes, "must be read in the context of [DOC's] refusal to cooperate with our investigation. Although [DOC] has provided some relevant data, our requests for other information have been denied or gone unanswered. Most importantly, [DOC] officials have refused to grant us access to female inmates, correctional staff, or [DOC] women's facilities."

Such stonewalling, Patrick states, can be considered by Attorney General Janet Reno as she determines whether the state should be sued. Such a lawsuit would seek to force DOC to make policy changes and would be overseen by a federal court: a situation DOC director Terry Stewart and Symington loathe.

Stewart fired back on September 25, 1996, in a 20-page letter to Reno.
"Quite frankly," he writes, "I am perplexed why you are threatening to file a lawsuit when the [Department of Corrections] has in place a comprehensive management strategy to prevent sexual misconduct between staff and inmates."

Claiming that "hundreds of staff hours" had been expended cooperating with the investigation, Stewart details what he says is an adequate system for preventing, investigating and punishing sexual misconduct.

"I am troubled, indeed bewildered, that it is believed a few isolated instances of staff misconduct are sufficient to support a . . . lawsuit against the [DOC]. There is simply no basis . . . to suggest a pattern or practice of misconduct rising to the level of Constitutional dimensions," he writes.

Noting that DOC may legally bar federal employees from state prisons, Stewart complains that investigators attempted to "defeat our decision by attempting to enter our prisons through subterfuge."

According to Stewart, Phoenix lawyer Mike Vaughn tried to sneak federal attorneys into a prison. "This attempt was discovered and the Assistant United States Attorneys were not allowed into the prison," Stewart writes.

Vaughn says Stewart's story is untrue. Vaughn says he did ask DOC if assistant U.S. attorney Robert Bartels could accompany him on a visit to an imprisoned client. But DOC denied the request, and Vaughn says he never attempted to take Bartels in. "There was no discovery of any subterfuge because there was no subterfuge to discover," Vaughn says.

Vaughn and attorney Buddy Rake represent several women who claim to have been sexually assaulted in prison. They alerted the Department of Justice in 1994 that female inmates were being abused, apparently triggering the federal investigation. (Stewart, in his reply to Reno, refers to affidavits that Vaughn and Rake obtained.)

Rake says, "We had a prisoner write us. When we went out to talk to her, she mentioned five or six other people. We could have just kept repeating this process. Everybody we talked to knew multiple people who had also been victimized." Vaughn and Rake stopped after 13 affidavits, but claim they could have collected many more.

"They're nonviolent, they're young, they're good-looking," Rake says of certain prisoners who were singled out by guards. "One woman in particular, who said she had sold drugs for her boyfriend, had gone to prison, and the very first night had been forced to orally copulate with a guard."

Neither state prison officials nor Department of Justice officials would discuss the current status of the investigation.

"What I can say, I think," says Janet Napolitano, U.S. attorney for Arizona, "is that we've been in discussions with DOC director Stewart over the last few months about this matter."

She declined to comment on the content of those discussions, but added, "I can tell you we have not yet filed a lawsuit."

Below are excerpts from the affidavits collected by Vaughn and Rake:
Inmate No. 1: "While at Florence I was fondled by [a correctional service officer] . . . I observed [the CSO] fondle other inmates. . . . I was forced to dance in the nude with another female inmate who was also nude. . . . It is common knowledge . . . that if you report sexual harassment or assault you will be punished by harassment, loss of privileges, intimidation, verbal and physical abuse."

Inmate No. 2: "I was forced to disrobe and I was fondled by [a CSO] . . . [he] forced me to touch his penis . . . [he] told me if I didn't comply, he would write me up. . . . [another CSO] forces me to disrobe and masturbate in front of him. . . . I live in constant fear."

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