Civil Rights

Federal Prison Guards Confess to Sexual Abuse of Inmates but Avoid Prosecution

September 11, 2023
Prison corridor and stairway

Table Of Contents

Hardeep Shergill

Last December, a Senate investigation led by the Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations found that six correctional officers employed at FCC Coleman admitted to engaging in illegal sexual conduct with at least ten women. Although the admissions were under oath, none of the six correctional officers were prosecuted due to Garrity v. New Jersey, a 1967 Supreme Court decision which held that U.S. law enforcement officers and other public employees have the right to be free from compulsory self-incrimination.

History of Abuse at FCC Coleman

Unfortunately, FCC Coleman has a long history of sexual abuse against inmates, with the first mention dating back to 2005 when the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted a nation-wide report to deter staff sexual abuse of federal inmates. Interestingly, the report found that lenient penalties under current federal statues hinder the effect of laws deterring correction officer sexual abuse and recommended that the Department of Justice pass stricter maximum penalties for officers found guilty of abuse.

Beginning in 2017, a group of six correctional officers from FCC Coleman, including Christopher Palomares, Keith Vann, Timothy Phillips, and Scott Campbell sexually assaulted nearly a dozen female inmates who were under their custody. The assaults ranged from inappropriate touching and groping to forced oral sex and rape. The correctional officers involved controlled the cameras, were aware of all blind spots, and brought women contraband, which created a culture of abuse that enabled officers to engage in misconduct.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was passed in 2003, holds a zero-tolerance policy towards all forms of sexual abuse and harassment against inmates. Importantly, PREA mandates that inmates have confidential reporting mechanisms, however survivors of assault at FCC Coleman did not report the abuse due to fear of retaliation, which unfortunately is a common sentiment throughout U.S. prisons. Unfortunately, survivors who do report correctional officers of assault have experienced the following:

  • Transport to another facility away from family
  • Placement in solitary confinement
  • Random room searches where officers destroy belongings
  • Undesirable work assignments
  • Verbal harassment and ostracization from other guards and staff members

As a result, victims of correctional officer abuse not only have to deal with the trauma associated from the assault but become isolated and cannot seek proper support.

Correctional Officers Avoid Criminal Prosecution: Garrity v. New Jersey 1967

According to an OIG Briefing from 2022, the BOP received numerous complaints of sexual assault against at least six correctional officers, but rather than investigating the complaints, the BOP sent the complaints to the OIG who also declined to investigate the complaints.

Because neither party wanted to investigate the claims, the BOP decided to conduct Garrity interviews in which employees are compelled to answer questions under oath. The interview style arose from the 1967 Supreme Court Decision Garrity v. New Jersey, which prohibits any statements made under oath by a government employee to be used in criminal prosecution if their government employer forced or “compelled” the employee to answer questions.

In 2019, the BOP conducted Garrity interviews with the six FCC Coleman officers who had complaints of sexual abuse against them, and all of them admitted to engaging in sexual misconduct with inmates. The following images are excerpts from the interviews presented to the Senate during the December 2022 Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations Hearing of Sexual Abuse of Female Inmates:

After the interviews were conducted, the BOP reiterated that the staff were compelled to participate in the interviews and stated that the officers “basically have immunity in some cases for engaging in sexual activity with multiple inmates. It is a terrible outcome.” All of the officers who admitted to the abuse retired shortly after and are still able to enjoy their retirement packages.

Since the BOP compelled the correctional officers under investigation to participate in the interview, the statements they made during the interview cannot be used in a criminal prosecution.

Following the results of the interviews as well as other lawsuits brought against FCC Coleman, in 2021, two days before the annual PREA audit arrived, FCC Coleman transferred all female inmates out of the prison to prohibit PREA auditors from conducting oral interviews with inmates per their protocol. Had PREA auditors conducted oral interviews with female inmates, they likely would have uncovered more allegations of correctional officer sexual assault. As a result, FCC Coleman is now an all-men’s facility and has not housed any women since the transfer in 2021.

Contrary to the 2005 report, it is evident that within the last few years, BOP correctional facilities have failed to prevent and deter sexual misconduct among staff given that six officers admitted to abusing women but faced no repercussions. Attorney Jaehyun Oh at the Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm is currently representing close to 50 women who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of correctional officers while incarcerated at various Federal prisons, including FCI Dublin and FCI Tallahassee.

Prison Sexual Abuse Lawyer: Holding Responsible Parties Accountable

Sexual relations between inmates and prison staff are prohibited because prison staff maintain substantial control over inmates’ daily lives, making it impossible for an inmate to meaningfully give or revoke their consent.

Although PREA prohibits all forms of sexual contact, prisons across the nation including FCI Dublin and FCI Tallahassee, have wrongfully put female inmates at increased risk of sexual victimization by failing to adequately prevent and detect sexual abuse committed by correctional officers.

In the December 2022 Senate hearing, the Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations published four key findings:

  1. Female inmates in two-thirds of federal prisons were sexually abused by BOP employees, including senior officials.
  2. The BOP failed to detect, prevent, and respond to sexual abuse of female prisoners.
  3. The BOP failed to hold employees accountable for misconduct.
  4. The Bop failed to take action to address sexual abuse of female inmates.

Our lead Civil Rights Attorney, Jaehyun Oh was present at the hearing with our client, Carolyn Richardson, after receiving a precedent-setting $3M settlement against the United States for officer-on-inmate sex abuse. Less than 24 hours after the hearing, the House passed the Prison Camera Reform Act to increase security measures at all prisons to prevent correctional officer sex abuse. This historic outcome was in part prompted by Ms. Richardson’s statement to the Subcommittee that she was sexually abused in a jail cell that was in a ‘blind spot’ from surveillance cameras.

Although increased security measures are important, they are basic. The U.S. Federal Government must do more to show their commitment to survivors of sexual abuse and towards preventing sexual abuse from occurring in the first place. Incarcerated individuals should never be put at risk of sexual abuse, and widespread reform is long overdue.

Attorney Jaehyun Oh is currently representing victims of correctional officer sex abuse across the country. Contact the Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm for a free, strictly confidential consultation.

According to Ms. Oh, “We understand how difficult it is to pursue claims against the abuser, especially when they were in the position of power; we are happy to serve as the voice for the victims and help them get a measure of peace by pursuing a claim against the abuser—as well as the government entity that allowed the abuse to occur.”