Prison sex abuse must be rooted out, Justice official says

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AURORA, Colo. (AP) — Sexual abuse in the nation’s federal prisons must be rooted out, the Justice Department's second-highest-ranking leader told prison wardens gathered for their first nationwide training since revelations that a toxic, permissive culture at a California prison allowed abuse to run rampant.

The Associated Press gained exclusive access to the training Tuesday for wardens of the country’s 122 federal prisons, the first since AP investigations uncovered deep, previously unreported flaws within the federal Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department’s largest law enforcement agency.

Teams of experts and officials will soon be fanning out to women's prisons around the country to follow up on on reforms the agency adopted last fall, and they'll speak to both staff and incarcerated people, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a speech at the training facility outside Denver.

At the training, wardens sat at round conference tables dotted with quotes about wellness and leadership from Malcolm X and Mahatma Gandhi. It was the first gathering of its kind in five years.

“This is urgent, urgent work,” Monaco told AP in an interview. “It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to call that out and make those changes and really be vigilant about it.”

Any sexual activity between a prison worker and an inmate is illegal. Correctional employees have substantial power over inmates, and there is no scenario in which an inmate can give consent.

At California's Dublin prison, a culture of predatory employees was fueled by cover-ups that largely kept their misconduct out of the public eye for years, AP’s reporting found. The prison's former warden was convicted of molesting inmates and forcing them to pose naked in their cells. He was one of several employees charged with sexual abuse of inmates. Its chaplain was also convicted.

Abuse that pervasive involving a warden is rare, but clusters of allegations against correctional officers and other staff are more common, said Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department Inspector General. His watchdog agency investigated that case and other sexual abuse complaints in federal prisons.

“One of the challenges the BOP faces is making sure that when you have a cancer in your institution, you get it out right away. Because if you don’t take steps to stop it, it spreads and grows,” he said.

Criminal prosecutions in other sexual abuse cases are expected to continue. Monaco told U.S. attorneys last week to prioritize cases of sexual abuse allegations against correctional staffers.

“But most importantly, we’ve got to do all of the work to prevent that from happening in the first place,” she said. Most wardens are dedicated leaders who can preside over a culture that “does not tolerate even one instance of sexual abuse," she said in the speech to wardens, which hit notes of both warning and encouragement.

Fundamental change in the Bureau of Prisons culture is part of a new mission statement announced Tuesday by the bureau's new director, Colette Peters. She was hired last year after her predecessor resigned amid mounting pressure from Congress. That came after the AP investigations exposed widespread corruption and misconduct.

The Justice Department’s on-the-ground approach is an extension and refinement of its response last year to the crisis at Dublin. Peters’ predecessor, Michael Carvajal, led a Bureau of Prisons task force on a weeklong trip to the Bay Area prison. They met with staff and inmates, some of whom shared graphic details of alleged abuse.

In December, President Joe Biden signed legislation requiring that the Bureau of Prisons fix broken surveillance cameras and install new ones, both to deter abuse and to aid investigators in holding abusive workers accountable. But the agency has been slow to install new cameras, with none being installed as of a February status report to bill sponsor Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga.

Broad cultural change points at the direction Peters says she wants to take the agency, including ramping up rehabilitation for incarcerated people to become “good neighbors” outside of prison.

“Most of these individuals are coming home. So what do we want them to look like when they come back to our communities?” Peters said.

Making prisons more “normal and humane” will also create better work environments for American correctional workers, who she says often suffer from PTSD and have shorter lifespans, unlike their counterparts in countries like Norway.

“That equates to a safer environment for both our employees and those in our care custody," she said.

It's rare to see a Justice Department official of Monaco's high rank at the leadership training, which used to happen every other year until the coronavirus pandemic hit, said Kevin Pistro, warden of a prison in Marianna, Florida. “The challenge for the leadership is to get out there and make sure the troops are good,” he said, noting that he felt supported by the words from her and Peters and would take the refocused priorities back to his own staff.

That doesn't mean deep change will be easy. Any major institutional shifts, whether in government or business, take time to filter throughout the system, Horowitz said.

“It takes several years. It takes a commitment over months and years to have an effective change of culture,” he said. “The key is sustaining it.”


Sisak reported from New York.