Sex-slave suit forces reforms at prisons
The San Francisco Examiner, March 3, 1998
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has agreed to significant reforms as part of a settlement of a civil rights lawsuit by three women who said they were sexually assaulted, beaten and sold by guards as sex slaves at the federal penitentiary in Dublin.
The private settlement, which was to be brought before a federal judge Tuesday, awards $500,000 to be shared by the women and specifies changes in policies, procedures and personnel training that would help prevent future incidents.
“Nothing can compensate my clients for the harm that was done to them,” said Michael Bien, one of their attorneys.
“But for them it was very critical that the settlement not only include monetary damages but also changes that will help other women who are still in prison in the federal system.”
As part of the settlement, the Bureau of Prisons agreed to implement within six months a national training program for current and new employees to recognize and report sexual assaults and sexual harassment of female prisoners. The bureau will also develop a confidential system of reporting attacks to protect inmates from retaliation.
Inmates also will be given literature on how to report sexual assaults, and victims will receive prompt medical and psychological treatment.
The lawsuit, filed in August 1996 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco by inmates Robin Lucas, Valerie Mercadel and Raquel Douthit, sought unspecified damages and changes in prison procedures and staff training.
Lucas, 31, was released from prison in July 1996, after serving 30 months of her 33-month sentence for conspiracy to commit credit card fraud. She now lives in the Bay Area and works for a board and care facility for the developmentally disabled.
She said in interviews with The Examiner that she and the other inmates did not have histories of violence. Mercadel and Douthit, both still in federal prison, were convicted on drug charges and are not considered dangerous.
Despite their classifications, Lucas said, they were placed in the men’s Secure Housing Unit, a solitary confinement unit, because of disciplinary problems such as fighting with other female inmates.
After the women reported the incidents, Douthit, 26, was transferred to a low-security prison in Tallahassee, Fla., and Mercadel, 32, to a similar prison in Danbury, Conn.
The women alleged that they were subjected to a pattern of sexual abuse, retaliation and coverup. They contended that officials knew of the sex slave ring, but ignored their calls for help.
“These women were being sold like sex slaves,” the women’s attorney, Geri Lynn Green, told The Examiner in a 1996 interview. “The guards took money from inmates in return for access to the women,” who were locked in men’s solitary confinement cells.
In their suit, the women complained of lack of privacy, saying they were visible to male inmates and guards 24 hours a day, including while they used the toilet and shower.
Allegedly raped, beaten
Lucas alleged she was raped, sodomized and beaten nearly unconscious on Sept. 25, 1995, in retaliation for reporting the sexual abuse and implicating prison officials.
The women’s suit named eight officials as defendants, alleging the defendants engaged in a prison prostitution ring or failed to act or stop it. The defendants in the civil litigation are: O. Ivan White, former director of the Western region for the federal Bureau of Prisons; Warden Loy Hayes, Capt. Dennis Smith, Lt. Charles Gillette, Lt. Sheila Yarborough and Lt. Wayne Ernest; and guards Margo Gillette and Garfield Samuels of the Dublin federal penitentiary.
Dublin prison officials said both guards named in the lawsuit no longer work at the prison.
One of the guards quit soon after the incidents came to light, said plaintiffs’ lawyer Bien.
Bien said he was disappointed the U.S. attorney’s office declined to prosecute any of the prison employees.
“We think that it’s a travesty the sanction for a guard violating the rights of these women and committing these criminal acts is merely having to find a new job,” he said.
Bien contends that substantial delays in the criminal investigation hindered the case and ultimately led to the decision not to prosecute. He said officials made a final determination not to pursue the case in the fall of 1997, two years after the events occurred.
“The manner in which the investigation was conducted and the delays led us to think there was just a failure on part of the U.S. attorney’s office to make the appropriate decision,” Bien said. “The message has to be sent that the criminal laws apply to law enforcement as well as the citizens of this country.”
U.S. Attorney Michael Yamaguchi said the allegations were taken very seriously by his office. He said officials at his office, the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, the inspector general’s office and the FBI conducted a thorough investigation but didn’t find enough evidence to prosecute any individual.
“There were serious problems with the proof of the elements necessary to prove a federal criminal offense,” Yamaguchi said. “We concluded that federal criminal charges could not be brought. There were questions about identity, knowledge and intent that were critical.”