"Participating in the case made me and so many others feel safe. Things have changed around here and I feel like I can turn my life around..."- CLS Client, on legal representation affecting hundreds of women experiencing sexual abuse in prison.
In July 2007, current and former female prisoners joined together in a lawsuit against the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC). CLS, joined by the Public Interest Law Group, represented the women who brought the lawsuit. They accused prison officials of failing to protect them from sexual abuse by corrections officers at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). In response to the lawsuit, DOC has made sweeping changes at its women’s facilities to reduce the incidence of sexual misconduct and to respond more effectively to such misconduct when it occurs. The changes apply in DOC’s prisons, work release facilities, and community custody offices and include revamping complaint and investigation procedures, installing additional surveillance cameras, hiring more female staff, and increasing training requirements.
A settlement was reached in 2010 and DOC’s compliance with the terms of the settlement and the implementation of the changes it has made were monitored for three years by the attorneys who represent the women affected by the lawsuit. The changes resulting from this case have made the prisons a safer place so that women in Washington do not have to experience the horror of being locked up with and unable to escape their abusers.
Background of the case:
Staff sexual misconduct was a longstanding problem in Washington’s two women’s prisons. In the years prior to the lawsuit, DOC received hundreds of complaints regarding staff engaging in sexual activity with female inmates. DOC own deeply flawed investigative practices substantiated dozens of separate allegations of staff sexual misconduct, nearly all by male staff members, in the women’s prisons between the beginning of 2005 and the middle of 2007. Many more legitimate allegations were likely not substantiated due to DOCs policies and practices.
Based on prisoner complaints, CLS and the Public Interest Law Group discovered a deficient system of protection from and investigation of this rampant problem. The probe showed that investigations of sexual assault complaints were biased and inadequate, and that prison officials usually unfairly blamed women who were abused. Most corrections officers reported by prisoners were cleared of misconduct and usually returned to work. Women prisoners were afraid to report sexual abuse by prison staff, fearing retaliation and loss of personal safety.
As a result of the lawsuit and ensuing settlement, over the next three years DOC agreed to make numerous changes in training, complaint and reporting procedures, and investigations to reduce the incidence of sexual misconduct by its employees; to respond more effectively to misconduct when it occurs; and to pay $1 million to settle damage claims by five current and former female prisoners. The settlement also caused changes that reduced the opportunities for staff to assault prisoners without being detected, including installing additional surveillance cameras and minimizing staff’s uncontrolled access to certain closets and rooms where prisoners had been assaulted. In addition, DOC created many new “women-only” staff positions to reduce the times women prisoners are alone with male staff and to protect the privacy of women prisoners in their living areas.
There are over 1,000 women in Washington prisons at any one time, with thousands more under community supervision by DOC. Going forward, the major changes wrought by this advocacy will help to protect women from vulnerability to sexual misconduct by DOC staff.