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Civil Rights

Prison Sexual Assault Survivors Petition for Compassionate Release

August 16, 2023
Jaehyun Oh with Carolyn Richardson
Contributors

The Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm is currently representing survivors of sexual assault at FCI Dublin, FCI Tallahassee, and prisons across the nation. Our lead prison sexual assault attorney, Jaehyun Oh is  participating in nation-wide reform efforts to ensure that survivors of prison sexual assault receive the necessary support and resources while they are incarcerated.

Currently, the Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm is collaborating with Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) as well as other nationally recognized law firms and attorneys to help our clients gain compassionate release to ensure that they are surround by their family and loved ones as they navigate this difficult process.

Compassionate Release Expands to Include Sexual Abuse in Prison

Compassionate Release allows courts to reduce an inmate’s sentence if a federal judge determines that “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances warrant a sentence reduction. Originally established in the 1980s as 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), compassionate release was only granted in grave medical situations such as terminal illnesses or unforeseen circumstances such as death or incapacitation of a family member who cared for a child.

In April of 2023, the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved significant changes to federal sentencing guidelines, including expanding the criteria for compassionate release to include sexual abuse in prison as a factor.

These changes came after the Permanent Subcommittee Investigation of Sexual Abuse of Female Inmates in Federal Prisons, where our client, Carolyn Richardson was invited to testify following attorney Jaehyun Oh’s historic $3M settlement obtained against the United States for officer-on-inmate sex abuse.

Ms. Richardson read a personal testimony regarding her sexual assault at the now-closed Manhattan Correctional Center. Along with two other women, Ms. Richardson testified that she was afraid to report her abuse to prison staff because she was afraid of experiencing retaliation from other officers:

“I was afraid of being questioned and doubted. I felt the officers would stick together instead of believing me or caring for me.”

Following the investigation, Congress found that there were well documented deficiencies in surveillance, reporting, and investigation that put incarcerated women at risk of sexual assault. Some articles attribute the April 2023 compassionate release expansion to the findings of the hearing.

Narrow Interpretation of Compassionate Release

Historically, compassionate release has had a very narrow interpretation, which has prevented inmates from benefiting from the program’s intention.

Shortly after its introduction, in 1994 the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) specified that compassionate release motions could only be brought by a BOP staff, mainly the warden, in order for a judge to consider a sentence reduction. However, this additional barrier made it nearly impossible for inmates to seek compassionate release because prison wardens had the ability to deny motions at their discretion and could deny requests without providing a sufficient reason for why.

Thus, the narrow interpretation of compassionate release combined with the requirement for BOP approval made it nearly impossible for inmates to successfully seek compassionate release. As a result, from 2013 to 2017, the BOP received about 5,400 requests, but wardens approved less than 6% of requests.

Furthermore, in a lengthy report published by FAMM, they noted that the BOP was not required to inform inmates of the possibility of compassionate release, did not specify eligibility criteria, and failed to include adequate educational information in law libraries or inmate handbooks. Additionally, inmates are often afraid to disclose full details to a warden due to the fear of retaliation, which meant that people who may have qualified for release may not have brought motions forward.

However, in 2018, Congress passed the First Step Act, which was the first change made to compassionate release since 2006. The First Step Act amended compassionate release to allow inmates to petition directly to court if they exhausted all administrative rights to appeal a BOP rejection. Inmates were also allowed to petition directly to the court if they did not receive a response from the warden within 30 days of their submission.

Although the eligibility criteria did not change, the First Step Act prevented the BOP from having complete discretion over compassionate release motions. Incarcerated people gained the ability to collaborate with attorneys to submit strong compassionate release motions to the court after exhausting administrative remedies.

FCI Dublin: Prison Sexual Assault in the Spotlight

In December of 2022, former FCI Dublin Warden Ray J. Garcia was convicted of seven counts of sexually abusive contact against three incarcerated victims. Garcia is currently the highest-ranking federal official to be sentenced since 1925, and he is the only warden who has been convicted of sexual abuse in history.

FCI Dublin is currently one of the worst documented cases of widespread sexual abuse by staff in a federal prison. As of August 2023, at least eight former FCI Dublin correctional officers have been charged with sexual abuse or abusive sexual contact of a ward.

The culture of abuse at FCI Dublin was so extreme, that inmates and correctional officers across the country referred to the prison as “the rape club.”

Even more alarming, survivors of prison sexual assault were discouraged from reporting their abuse due to the fear of retaliation from correctional officers. Women who did come forward with allegations of correctional officer sexual assault were wrongfully placed in the Special Housing Unit for weeks at a time, had their rooms destroyed by correctional officers and faced verbal harassment from correctional officers. Furthermore, incarcerated women were not properly informed that they could confidentially report sexual assault and were legally entitled to protection from retaliation if they did report.

Although compassionate release does serve as an important protective measure for survivors of prison sexual abuse, the Bureau of Prisons needs to ensure that survivors of sexual assault receive proper protection and support while they are incarcerated.

The Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm Will Advocate for You

Although we do not file compassionate release motions directly, the Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm works very closely with prominent organizations to ensure that our clients receive support in all aspects of their case, not just their civil claim.

Our lead civil rights attorney Jaehyun Oh has built a strong relationship with the nationally recognized nonprofit advocacy organization, FAMM which specializes in compassionate release reform.

Jaehyun Oh is also participating in nation-wide reform efforts to bring attention to sexual assault as an extraordinary and compelling reason to ensure that all victims of prison sexual assault receive the support they deserve. Our participation in the Senate Hearing last December was the first step of many to bring attention to this issue.

Attorney Jaehyun Oh is currently representing victims of sexual abuse from FCI Dublin and FCI Tallahassee, and we are working to ensure that all of our clients who are still incarcerated are able to be released as soon as possible.

Correctional officer sexual contact is prohibited by law, and victims of assault should be surrounded with support from family members and loved ones to deal with the trauma. Unfortunately, those who do report sexual assault to the prison are wrongfully subject to retaliation both by prison officials and other inmates, which often discourages survivors from speaking up while incarcerated.

The Department of Justice has stated that they are not only committed to holding abusers accountable, but also committed to supporting victims of sexual assault. Granting compassionate release motions to victims of sexual assault is one way that the DOJ can show their support.

The Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm takes pride in our participation in national political reform efforts. The goal of our work is not only to support our clients, but to ensure that anyone who has been subject to sexual abuse while incarceration receives necessary support and help.

We can help when the unimaginable happens.