On Tuesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee released the results of a bipartisan investigation that found, in the last decade alone, federal Bureau of Prisons employees have abused female incarcerated people in at least 19 of the 29 federal prisons that hold women. In that time period, incarcerated people have made 5,415 allegations that prison employees sexually assaulted them, and some investigations of those allegations have been pending for over five years.
As part of its response to the epidemic of sexual assault in prisons, deputy attorney general Lisa Monaco has, for the last several months, been asking the Bureau of Prisons to support incarcerated people who have been sexually abused by prison staff to apply to be considered for compassionate early release, the New York Times reported on Wednesday. In September, Monaco wrote a letter to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which advocates for incarcerated people’s rights, informing the group that she’d directed Bureau of Prisons Director Colette S. Peters to “review whether B.O.P.’s policy regarding compassionate release should be modified” to include incarcerated people who have been assaulted by prison staff, the Times reported.
Since Monaco’s letter, Peters has said she’ll consider requests for early release from these victims if they’re deemed to not be threats to their communities. “I am open to this consideration that is a very complex issue, which is why it’s under pretty significant review,” Peters told USA Today on Tuesday. “I think we’re concerned about consistency, I think we’re concerned about fairness, and so I think that each case is unique.”
In 2013, Congress authorized compassionate early release when an incarcerated person has “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for it. But according to FAMM’s research, the bureau has considered few circumstances compelling enough to warrant compassionate release, which has primarily been limited to cases when incarcerated people are elderly or are terminally ill and have months to live. Monaco’s push for sexual assault survivors to qualify for compassionate early release marks a new step to address a systemic crisis in the prison system.
In its aforementioned bipartisan report this week, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee, led by Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), emphasized a broader culture of endemic sexual abuse in which prison guards at correctional facilities across the country to see themselves as above the law.
One woman who spoke to the subcommittee had been sexually assaulted by an official at a prison in West Virginia, and said that the official had threatened to block her upcoming transfer to a prison that was closer to her family if she resisted. Another woman who was sexually assaulted by a guard while serving a 12-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Complex Coleman in Florida and spoke to the subcommittee said “there’s a lack of accountability, a secrecy” surrounding sexual abuse at prison. She said she learned this when, upon reporting her sexual assault to the prison in 2019, she discovered she was one of at least 10 other women who had reported similar experiences.
The Senate subcommittee singled out the Coleman prison, pointing to how the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General has declined to investigate six male officers at Coleman who are accused of abuse. Per the subcommittee’s report, these officers have “already admitted to sexually abusing female prisoners under their supervision,” but none of them were prosecuted.
The Senate’s report named three other prisons where incarcerated women have been sexually targeted by guards with impunity, including a prison in Dublin, California, that was called the “rape club” by its staff. Earlier this month, the Dublin prison’s former warden was found guilty of seven charges of sexual abuse. And across the country in New York, in November, hundreds of women formerly incarcerated in the state prison system filed civil lawsuits alleging they had been sexually abused by prison staff, after a state law extending the statute of limitations for sex crimes took effect.
Peters acknowledged the “challenges” the bureau faces to USA Today. “Culture change is hard; culture change takes a lot of work,” she told the outlet. Peters continued, “When you look at people’s inability or fear to come forward, like in the case of our [Dublin] facility, that is substantial.” While Peters said she had “confidence in the future,” she stressed that the bureau has struggled to hire people to key positions since the strain that the covid pandemic imposed on prisons and prison staff.
Extending eligibility for compassionate early release to those who experience sexual abuse behind bars is a step toward progress that could change incarcerated women’s lives. But this policy change alone won’t address the sexual assault-to-prison pipeline that places survivors at greater risk of being incarcerated in the first place. Nor will it change the dehumanizing power dynamics within the criminal legal system that make incarcerated people exponentially more vulnerable to sexual abuse.