- Barrington Daltrey for DRCNet
The war on drugs continues to exact its toll on the humanity of our system of justice, the civil rights of individuals, and on taxpayers' pocketbooks. On March 3, 1998, Judge Thelton E. Henderson of the United States District Court in San Francisco was presented a settlement of a civil rights suit against the United States Bureau of Prisons brought by three women prisoners, two of whom are in federal prison on drug charges.
According to their lawyers, Michael Bien and Geri Lynn Green, the three were victims of sexual assault and rape while housed in the J-2 Segregated Housing Unit of the otherwise all male Federal Detention Center in Dublin, California. The attacks occurred in the fall of 1995.
"We are incarcerating people at alarming rates," said Green, "The prison systems are not set up to handle the huge increases. Even in women's prisons, men staff the units. They read the prisoner's mail and listen to all phone calls. There exists no safe and secure method of reporting abuse, meanwhile there has been a steady erosion of prisoners' access to the courts, legal representation, and the press. These attacks and the resulting retaliation occurred because we have a prison system that is accountable to no one. The prison system thrives on cover-ups and retaliation, breeding malfeasance and misfeasance by prison personnel without redress."
The settlement requires changes in operating procedures at federal prisons throughout the country, and the women will share in $500,000 in damages to be paid by the federal government.
The attacks reportedly occurred repeatedly late at night, when a correctional officer would open the women's cell doors, giving access to male inmates. When two of the women got word out to the regional director requesting help, they received no assistance. Instead, word of one victim's under oath identification of the correctional officer and an attacker was leaked to the male inmates, and subsequently her door was again opened. Three men entered, handcuffing her, brutally beating her and sexually assaulting her. The attackers made clear this attack was retribution for her reports to authorities.
Despite polygraph tests validating the victims' statements, the U.S. Attorney's Office sat on the case for two years and refused to bring it before a grand jury. Ultimately the case was closed without action being brought against the correctional officer or anyone else for the violent crimes, the cover-ups, the acts of retaliation or the obstruction of justice.
Enforcement of even the civil settlement will be difficult. "In 1996, a new federal law was passed which greatly restricts the power of the federal courts to protect prisoners from serious violations of their Constitutional rights, such as the rape and sexual assault of my clients," said Bien. "Because of this law, plaintiffs will not be able to enforce the settlement of this case by seeking relief from Judge Henderson. There is no reason that the operation of the federal prison system should be beyond the scrutiny of the federal courts. The law is bad policy and is unconstitutional."