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Male prison employees assault women in at least two-thirds of U.S. prisons


A bipartisan Senate investigation has found widespread abuse of women in prison by some of the male wardens, officers and volunteers tasked to protect them. The investigation uncovered evidence of sexual abuse in at least two-thirds of the federal facilities that housed women over the past decade. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports. And just a warning - this story discusses sexual violence.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Briane Moore says a captain at the federal prison in Alderson, W.Va., began targeting her in 2017. Moore had been seeking a transfer to be closer to her daughter.


BRIANE MOORE: He took me to areas that were isolated in the prison, where there were no cameras. He told me he knew I wanted to transfer to another prison. He said, the paperwork goes through me.

JOHNSON: Moore says she felt powerless.


MOORE: He was a captain, with total control over me. I had no choice but to obey. (Crying) I always had to follow orders in prison. It is hard to fully describe how this felt.

JOHNSON: After word finally came that she could move to a different prison, Moore says, the captain raped her one last time.


MOORE: (Crying) After the abuse, I could not sleep full nights for months. I had reoccurring nightmares that played over and over like a broken record. I woke up in cold sweats.

JOHNSON: Eventually, Moore's abuser was convicted for assaulting her and others, but that experience is unusual for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Senator Jon Ossoff, a Democrat from Georgia, led the eight-month investigation.


JON OSSOFF: Our findings are deeply disturbing and demonstrate, in my view, that the BOP is failing systemically to prevent, detect and address sexual abuse of prisoners by its own employees.

JOHNSON: Ossoff says, at one California prison, both the warden and the chaplain assaulted incarcerated women. The person in charge of compliance with the law to prevent prison rape there was also abusing women.


OSSOFF: In fact, several officers who admitted under oath to sexually abusing prisoners were able, nevertheless, to retire with benefits.

JOHNSON: His investigation found a backlog of hundreds of sexual abuse allegations in the internal affairs unit for federal prisons. Linda de la Rosa says it took three years to arrest, convict and sentence the prison worker who raped her, even though he had been investigated for predatory behavior several times before.


LINDA DE LA ROSA: (Crying) I believe the problem is the old boys club - prison staff, managers, investigators, correctional officers. They all worked together for years, if not decades. No one wants to rock the boat, let alone listen to female inmates.

JOHNSON: Brenda Smith, law professor at American University, urged the Justice Department to hire more women to work in women's prisons and to beef up audits of prison conditions with independent verification, like looking at complaints and lawsuits.


BRENDA SMITH: We have the people who are supposed to be being audited auditing themselves, essentially. And so what happens - there's not a great deal of diversity.

JOHNSON: Colette Peters is the new chief of the federal prison system, on the job for the past five months. Peters says she's looking at how wardens in facilities for women are selected and supervised. She's also pledged to update camera systems in prison.


COLETTE PETERS: Any kind of misconduct, especially sexual misconduct by bureau employees, is always unacceptable and must not be tolerated.

JOHNSON: Peters says prison workers have an obligation to come forward to identify predators in their own ranks. Carrie Johnson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.