3 women sue, allege sex slavery in prison
The San Francisco Examiner, September 29, 1996
Three women say they were sexually assaulted, beaten and “sold” by guards as sex slaves for male prisoners during their stay at the federal penitentiary in Alameda County.
The three have sued federal prison authorities saying the officials knew of the slavery ring, but ignored their repeated pleas for help.
The three filed a lawsuit Aug. 13 in federal court in San Francisco seeking unspecified damages and changes in prison procedures to prevent such pain and humiliation for other women inmates.
The lawsuit names eight officials as defendants and alleges they engaged in the prison prostitution ring or failed to act to stop it.
“These women were being sold like sex slaves,” attorney Geri Lynn Green said. “The guards took money from inmates in return for access to the women,” who were locked in men’s solitary confinement cells.
The defendants in the civil rights litigation are: O. Ivan White, former director of the Western Region for the Federal Bureau of Prisons; Warden Loy Hayes, Capt. Dennis Smith, Lts. Charles Gillette, Sheila Yarborough and Wayne Ernest; and guards Margo Gillette and Garfield Samuels of the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Alameda County.
Paul Laird, prison public information officer, said neither guard still works at the prison, but declined to say whether they’re still in the federal correctional system. He said the other officers could not comment because of the pending lawsuit.
Dennis Grossini, spokesman for White, said the former regional director has been transferred to the prison bureau’s internal affairs office in Denver and also declined comment.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bert Glenn, who was assigned to investigate the case, also declined comment.
The women plaintiffs are Robin Lucas, Valerie Mercadel and Raquel Douthit. Lucas is out of prison, but Mercadel and Douthit are still serving time and have been transferred to other federal prisons.
They were moved, Green said, after she and other lawyers began looking into the women’s allegations. Douthit was transferred to a low-security prison in Tallahassee, Fla., and Mercadel to a similar prison in Danbury, Conn.
Karen Bower, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Prison Project in Washington, D.C., said lawsuits by women inmates against correctional personnel have become more prevalent.
“Just like women were once reluctant to report rape or spousal rape, so they have been reluctant to report incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment in prison,” Bower said.
Debbie Brake, an attorney with the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, said, “Sexual harassment and abuse of women in prison unfortunately is rather common. . . . We think that most of the time it’s not even reported.”
Lucas, 30, served 30 months of her 33-month sentence for credit card conspiracy. She now lives in Marin County and owns a hair salon in The City’s Ingleside District. She said during interviews with The Examiner that neither she nor her co-plaintiffs have a violent history. Mercadel and Douthit were convicted on drug charges and not considered dangerous.
Lucas said despite their low classifications, they were placed in the men’s Secure Housing Unit, a prison euphemism for solitary confinement, because of disciplinary problems such as fighting with other female inmates.
Although placing them in men’s solitary violated prison regulations against the mixing of sexes, prison officials ignored the women’s requests to return to their own cells, she said.
The three women have also filed written statements that described the alleged violence and indignities they suffered while in solitary confinement, where they were visible to male inmates and guards 24 hours a day, including while they used the toilet and shower.
Lucas and Mercadel agreed to talk about their alleged ordeals. Douthit declined a request for a phone interview.
Among the hunted
“The more I said “No,’ the more it became like I was the game and they were the hunters,” Lucas said, particularly when the men learned she was a lesbian.
“That was the main reason the guys kept coming down there,” she said. “I like feminine things, and I don’t look butch.”
Lucas said she had a girlfriend in prison, but the men refused to accept that relationship.
“They kept saying, “Maybe we can change your mind,’ ” Lucas said, adding that she grew up with eight brothers and learned how to fight and defend herself.
“The first time a guy came in (to my cell), I picked up a broomstick and broke it over him,” she said. “I know how to hit a person so he won’t get up.”
Lucas said things got worse after she complained to prison officials, then filed an affidavit detailing the unsolicited sexual harassment and physical abuse she endured from male inmates.
A violent warning
Between midnight and 5 a.m. on Sept. 22, 1995, she said three male prisoners unlocked her cell door.
One carried a set of handcuffs. It’s a felony for an inmate to have handcuffs. Only guards are allowed to have them.
Lucas said the men grabbed her, handcuffed her hands from behind, then nearly beat her unconscious.
“One guy held one leg, and one held the other leg and the third was between my legs,” she said.
The men repeatedly raped and sodomized her, while threatening her with continued abuse if she kept complaining, Lucas said.
“If they hadn’t put the handcuffs on me, they would have had to kill me,” she said. She suffered severe injuries to her neck, arms, back, vaginal and anal areas.
Lucas said the men called her a “snitch” and told her to
“keep my mouth shut” about the sexual abuse.
Both she and her attorney said the threats, beating and assaults were meant to intimidate Lucas into not pursuing her accusations against prison officials.
“The guard let them into her cell presumably to terrorize her, because of the statement she had made implicating the prison staff and inmates,” Green said. “She implicated them in the sexual slavery ring the guards were running.”
Similar attack recounted
Mercadel, 31, told a similar story, saying she was hit and threatened by male inmates who were let into her cell by a guard.
“One (man) came into my room and tried to have sex with me,” she said. “I kept telling him no and he just pulled my blouse down . . . and jumped on top of me,” she said.
She said federal prison investigators interviewed her, but told her they had often heard such complaints.
“They said this is nothing new and we should just let it die down,” Mercadel said in a phone interview.
Douthit, 25, described in a sworn statement how the sexual and physical abuse took on a racial overtones.
“I am informed that a white woman was brutally attacked and then complained to prison officials,” she said.
“All white women were then removed from (men’s solitary) but the black women, including myself, remained on the unit.”
Patricia Batiste, 30, who served five years in the Dublin federal prison for drug convictions, said about one-third of women in prison trade sex with guards for favors, some as small as packages of gum or small vials of perfume. The other two-thirds live with constant harassment to do the same.
Lucas, meanwhile, feels she has made strides to pull her life together, but said the brutality she suffered while in prison stole a part of her.
“I’m the not the same person,” she said. “I’m paranoid about everything. … I don’t laugh as much. I’ll never be the same. The Robin who entered prison is gone, gone forever.”