Sexual abuse: guards let rapists into women's cells.
West had trouble finding Robin. She didn't know that women could be housed in a men's facility. When she finally found her, she was shocked.
"I'd never seen her like that," West recalls. "Her eyes were red, and she was shaking like a leaf on a tree. She told me that the guard was letting guys in on her."
Women are never supposed to be placed in the men's Special Housing Unit--commonly referred to as "the hole" or "the SHU"--unless there is overcrowding in the women's facility, says Wilson Moore, public-information officer for the federal Bureau of Prisons in Dublin. Only the warden himself can authorize such an arrangement, says Moore, and no men are supposed to be present at the same time as the women.
"Men are men," says Moore. "If they know that there are women in there, they may start yelling things at them, and we do not need that at all."
Despite the prison's claim that women are never held in the SHU alongside the men, prison records show that Robin Lucas and several other women were held in the men's unit in August and September of 1995. Inmates of these units are supposed to be locked in their single cells at all times, except when they take showers.
But between midnight and 8 A.M., when a certain correctional officer was on duty, male prisoners routinely had access to the women's cells, Robin says. Men came to for cell, offered her alcohol, and asked her for sex. One night a male prisoner came into their cell and climbed into her bed while she was asleep. Robin woke up and couldn't believe he was there.
"I told him not to do that again," she says. But he came back the following night.
Two days after Robin signed an affidavit complaining about the night-time activities the SHU, the men labeled her a switch. Fearing for her safety, Robin repeatedly requested transfer and protection. But her requests were ignored, and she was left in the men's unit.
Three weeks later, between midnight and 5 A.M., Robin heard the lock other cell door pop open. She had been asleep and was still in bed when three men grabbed her arms from behind and handcuffed her.
"One grabbed one leg, one grabbed the other leg, and one kept hitting me," she says, and recalls what happened next:
Five rapid punches knocked the wind out of her. Though Robin is a very strong woman, she couldn't keep her legs together, and the men raped her. They told her they would kill her if she didn't keep her mouth shut. Eventually they removed the handcuffs and slipped out the door. The cell door was then relocked.
Robin asked her grandmother to report the attack. But each time Ardella West tried to contact a prison official, she got the run-around. "Sorry, lady, there is no one here to talk to you," they'd tell her. It wasn't until West contacted an attorney that the unit manager even returned her phone calls.
Geri Lynn Green, a San Francisco attorney, remembers getting the first phone call from West, whose opening question was, "When you go to prison, do you give up all your rights, even the right not to have sex with someone you don't want to have sex with?" Green was also given the runaround when she tried to visit Robin. Guards at the men's facility turned her away, and told her women were not housed there.
Eventually Robin was moved to the women's unit, where she met two more women who had just been transferred from the men's side. Donna Rhodes and Marilyn Vayner (not their real names) recounted their own horror stories of their stay in the men's SHU.
Rhodes, a twenty-five-year-old woman serving a seven-and-a-half-year term for drug trafficking and conspiracy, was stuck between two men's cells. Shortly after she arrived, she heard "men hollering and screaming, telling me that I was going to have unwelcome visitors," she says.
That first night, she recalls, a male inmate who described himself as the guard's "best friend," brought her liquor. He told her that no one could get into the women's cells unless the guard, whom he called "Dude," said so.
One night, Rhodes says she saw a hand with a bracelet around the wrist opening her door. In the morning, when the guard served her a meal tray, she recognized the same gold bracelet on his wrist.
Rhodes says she was sexually assaulted twice. One of the men told her that he had "paid $70 for this shit." Afterwards, she says, she was "devastated" and "scared."
When Marilyn Vayner's cell door opened the first time, a man came up to her and asked for a hug, she says. When she refused, he grabbed her breast and began sucking and fondling her. Finally, he backed off and left. The door was locked behind him.
The second time the door opened, she says, it was the guard himself. He asked if she wanted anyone in her room. She told him, unequivocally, "No." From then on, a terrified Vayner would move her mattress to the floor each night and sit against the door waiting for the light of day, Men repeatedly threatened her, she says. One told her he would get his $50 worth of pussy, ass, or ass whupping."
Vayner and Rhodes wrote a letter of complaint to the regional director of the Bureau of Prisons, Oliver Ivan White. According to Green, who also represents Vayner and Rhodes, the regional director's office simply photocopied the letter and sent it back to the prison.
Green and her co-counsel, Michael Bien, contacted the U.S. Attorney and the FBI. Eventually, the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General started an investigation.
The women have been transferred out of the federal prison and are being held in a local jail facility for their protection. A civil suit is likely to follow.
The guard who allegedly let the men into the cells is no longer employed at the prison. "He resigned and disappeared," said a spokesperson at the human resources department of the Bureau of Prisons. "He was supposed to come in to give a forwarding address and turn in all his equipment, but he never made it."
Louis Rothenstein worked in the psychology department of the federal prison in Dublin from 1987 until 1993. He s was not uncommon for gu; go into women's cells are sex. Complaints by women inmates and their advocates were ignored, he says. "You would be blackballed if you were thought of as an advocate for the inmates," he notes, adding that there is a code of silence observed within the prison industry, which shields it from scrutiny.
The stories of these three women are not unique. The National Prison Project of the ACLU reports that once women enter prison, they are frequently the target of sexual abuse by the staff. According to the Project, this is particularly traumatic because many women prisoners have previously been sexually or physically abused. The Women's Rights Project of Human Rights Watch is also concerned about the abuse that women suffer behind bars. It intends to release a report this summer on conditions for women inmates in eleven prisons in five states and the District of Columbia.
The corrections facilities in Washington, D.C., are notorious. A few years ago, a successful class-action suit was brought on behalf of 800 female inmates held at three different correctional facilities under the jurisdiction of the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections. Federal judge June Green issued a sweeping opinion in 1994 detailing the horrifying conditions that women had endured in each location: rape, sexual harassment, poor medical care, lack of privacy, and failure to properly investigate allegations of misconduct by prison employees. Some inmates were forced to perform sexual acts for their jailers in exchange for food and cigarettes.
"The evidence revealed a level of sexual harassment which is so malicious that it violates contemporary standards of decency," Judge Green wrote. "The safety of women prisoners is entrusted to prison officials, some of whom harass women prisoners and many of whom tolerate the harassment."
Judge Green ordered the D.C. department of corrections to implement a host of remedial measures, such as developing a uniform sexual-harassment and misconduct policy and establishing a confidential hotline for women to report harassment. She also ordered the department to report rapes to the police.
But the conditions have not changed much since their success in the trial court, according to Peter Nickles and Brenda Smith, the attorneys for the women prisoners in Washington, D.C. "Many of the same guards are there. The prison took action against only a few," says Smith. She's hopeful, however, that there may now be greater awareness of the problem.
There are now more than 69,000 sentenced women prisoners in the country, an increase of more than 500 percent since 1980. And with the increase in numbers has come a decrease in rights.
On April 26, President Clinton signed into law the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Introduced by Republican challenger Bob Dole, the bill was tacked onto the budget bill and passed with little debate and virtually no media attention. The new law restricts the ability of prisoners to sue because of prison conditions. It prevents a court from issuing any relief unless it finds that the prison has violated the law. This effectively eliminates court-enforceable settlement agreements known as "consent decrees."
Another provision puts a two-year time limit on court orders for relief, regardless of whether the prison has complied. It also significantly reduces attorneys' fees so that it will be difficult for all but the very large firms to handle the hefty cost of prison litigation.
Some states, including California, are banning face-to-face media interviews with inmates. Keeping the media out is a calculated move to ensure that the code of silence inside the prison walls is not breached.
That way, stories like those of Robin Lucas, Donna Rhodes, and Marilyn Vayner may never become public. As a result, abused prisoners will have to suffer in silence.
"People with authority shouldn't be allowed to abuse their authority," says Robin. They have control and power and can do anything they want to us. I don't want this to happen to anyone else."
Bobbie Stein is a professor at New College School of Law in San Francisco and is the director of the school's in-house criminal-defense clinic. She wrote "Cops Make Crack in California" in our April 1995 issue.