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DOJ Stance on Handling Inmate Sexual Abuse

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is cracking down on federal prison guards who sexually abuse inmates, saying Bureau of Prisons (BOP) employees haven’t been punished harshly enough. 

A new memo written by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco to DOJ officials says federal prosecutors must use “all available tools” to hold correctional officers accountable for abusing incarcerated women. 

The edict comes after a scathing report by a DOJ working group, led by principal associate deputy attorney general Marshall Miller, found that hundreds of sexual misconduct complaints against BOP correctional officers over five years led to just 45 federal prosecutions. 

Numerous investigations of federal prisons, particularly those holding more vulnerable female inmates, have revealed a rampant culture of disturbing inmate abuse by prison guards. Inmates, who fear various repercussions like further attacks, solitary confinement and loss of privileges, often suffer in silence rather than reporting the abuse. 

The working group pointed out the lack of prevention of the abuse happening in the first place and recommended several solutions going forward.

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Suggestions include an early warning system that notes guards who show up late after prison rounds, increased security cameras, higher pay for wardens of women’s prisons, and a hotline that women and their loved ones could use to confidentially report sexual abuse.

The report also urged a rehaul of how the BOP investigates abuse complaints. Currently, the complaints are initially investigated by other federal officers who may be friends with the accused, creating a clear conflict of interest. The group said they should be investigated by a specially-appointed sex crimes task force.

Prison reform advocacy groups such as FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) believe that incarcerated women who fall victim to sexual assault by guards should be eligible for the compassionate release program, which allows inmates to seek early release due to extraordinary or compelling circumstances.

Calls for extended compassionate release came after it took several years to charge five BOP employees – including the warden and a chaplain – at the federal prison in Dublin, California, with sexual abuse crimes against inmates.

The all-female federal facility houses about 750 women. Their complaints to the administration of horrific sexual violence by the guards were kept under wraps for five years.

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The warden, Ray J. Garcia, was convicted earlier this month of seven counts of abusive conduct and one count of falsifying statements to government agents. He will be sentenced next March.

Prior to a Congressional ruling four years ago that allowed abused inmates to ask federal judges for compassionate release, the BOP had sole discretion over requests and hardly ever exercised it. 

“They [Dublin abuse victims] were not sentenced to being raped in prison, and not only were they raped, they turned around at great cost and cooperated with the investigation of this warden and this chaplain,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring. “And you’re going to say we have no power to give them relief, that they’re supposed to heal inside a prison?”

The DOJ report said that current BOP Director Colette Peters, who took over in January 2022 after former director Michael Carvajal resigned amid scandal and struggle, is considering whether to modify the current policy on compassionate release.

In September, a Senate Bipartisan Policy Working Group founded by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Mike Braun (R-IN) introduced the Federal Prison Oversight Act, which would require the DOJ’s Inspector General to conduct an exhaustive inspection and overhaul of all 122 BOP facilities.