No consequences after Florida officers admit to sexually abusing inmates, lawsuit says

Fifteen women at the nation’s largest federal prison filed suit, saying sexual abuse at FCC Coleman in Florida was widespread.
Illustration by LISA MERKLIN | Times
Illustration by LISA MERKLIN | Times [ LISA MERKLIN | Times ]
Published Sept. 17, 2020

Within a month of arriving in federal prison, Lauren Reynolds says she was targeted by an officer. He told her he’d protect her if she gave him what he wanted.

He wanted sex.

After the first time Officer Daniel Kuilan forced himself on Reynolds, she said he told her not to tell anyone or she’d be in trouble and sent to another facility with fewer work and education privileges, according to a lawsuit filed in December in federal court by Reynolds and 14 other female inmates.

Reynolds said she was raped by Kuilan for six months — every Wednesday at a warehouse before her work shift began.

The lawsuit contends that Bureau of Prisons officers repeatedly sexually assaulted and abused the inmates at the Federal Correctional Complex Coleman in Sumter County.

In some cases, the women allege, the abuse lasted for years. The women, who range in age from 26 to 59, were threatened if they didn’t comply, the suit maintains.

Six of the accused officers admitted to having sexual contact with inmates but denied some claims in the lawsuit, according to a government response filed in July.

Kuilan was among the officers who admitted to engaging in sexual misconduct at Coleman, according to the government’s filing. In Kuilan’s case, his victim was Reynolds, the U.S. government acknowledged. Another officer admitted to having sexual contact with seven of the inmates who brought the lawsuit.

The officers were not prosecuted — instead, they were allowed to resign or retire, and some are still receiving benefits. Kuilan resigned with a medical disability in 2019, according to the government’s court filing.

In the government response, Reynolds saw for the first time that Kuilan had admitted that he had “previously engaged in sexual conduct” with her. Kuilan declined to comment when reached by phone by a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

“It kind of validated me on a personal level," Reynolds said. "But still, I have to live with it.”

• • •

Several of the officers said they considered the sexual contact to be consensual.

But sexual contact between officers and inmates qualifies as abuse under any circumstance.

“There is never any such thing as consensual sex between staff and inmates,” the Bureau of Prisons policy reads. The word “consensual” is italicized for emphasis.

The policy states that sexual abuse from a staff member includes voyeurism, asking an inmate for sexual favors and any contact where the staff member has the intent of abuse, arousal or gratifying sexual desires.

Allegations of sexual abuse are investigated and referred for prosecution when appropriate, the policy says, and employees can be fired for inappropriate behavior or relationships with inmates, whether or not criminal charges are pursued.

Joe Rojas, the southeast regional vice president for the workers union, AFGE Council of Prisons, which represents prison officers, described the actions of the former Coleman officers as “disgusting.”

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He said the officers were let off easy, and if the allegations are true, they should be in prison. Officers are required to complete annual sexual abuse and misconduct training, said Rojas, who worked at Coleman for 25 years.

“There are bad staff," he said. “Which doesn’t reflect the other 1,300 staff who work hard, protect society and are never guaranteed to go home when they go to work.”

The federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the 15 women contends the Coleman prison was a “sanctuary” for abusers. Many of the women had to interact with the officers in their assigned jobs and feared that resisting or reporting them would jeopardize those roles. They also feared that they’d be sent to another facility far from their families or with tighter security and fewer training or vocational opportunities.

The admissions from officers are part of a 38-page response from federal attorneys who acknowledged sexual misconduct in six officerscases. Two other accused officers did not confess to sexual misconduct, according to the documents.

The government’s court filing does not provide affidavits or statements in the officers' own words.

The abuse dates to 2012 in some cases, spanning five to six years. The lawsuit is headed to a settlement conference in November, and then to trial in early 2022 if the plaintiffs don’t resolve their cases.

In the lawsuit, Christopher Palomares' name comes up more than any other officer. Ten women accused him of sexual abuse. The government admitted that he had engaged in sexual conduct with seven women.

One woman said Palomares told her he could make her time in prison “easy or hard,” depending on how she responded to him, according to the lawsuit. Over a four-year period beginning in 2014, she said he ordered her into private rooms where he forced her to perform oral sex.

Palomares did not respond to attempted phone calls, emails and Facebook messages seeking comment.

On New Year’s Eve in 2017, Officer Scott Campbell walked a woman to the electrical work shed where he told her to lay on a couch, performed oral sex on her and then raped her, according to the suit. Campbell said he knew the inmate couldn’t get pregnant, because he had read her medical file, the lawsuit claims. The government says that Campbell admitted to engaging in sexual conduct with three women.

Soon after an inmate’s arrival at Coleman in 2015, Officer Timothy Phillips threatened to strip her of her maintenance job unless she showed him whether her breasts were “real or fake,” according to the lawsuit. It claims that in 2016, he drove her to a parked semi-truck with a mattress inside and undressed her while she begged him not to rape her. Phillips admitted to engaging in sexual conduct with two women, according to court filings.

Campbell and Phillips did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails requesting an interview for this story. The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the suit, citing ongoing litigation. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said that it could not comment for the same reason. Bureau officials also denied public records requests seeking correctional officers' personnel files.

In its July court filing, the government acknowledged that cases of sexual misconduct were investigated at Coleman involving some of the officers named in the suit, but the investigations “were not sustained.”

Two other officers admitted abuse, according to the court filings. The government said that Tracy Laudenslager admitted that he had engaged in sexual conduct with one inmate. Laudenslager did not return calls or emails requesting an interview.

The government also said that Keith Vann admitted he engaged in sexual conduct with two women. Vann, who worked at the Bureau of Prisons for 20 years before resigning related to the allegations, told the Times that he regrets what he did, and he knows his actions hurt people.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish that I hadn’t done what I did,” he said.

Vann oversaw inmates in landscaping. The lawsuit accuses him of groping inmates, making sexual comments and pushing them into group sex with himself and other inmates.

Despite the clear language of the Bureau of Prison’s policy, Vann said he felt the sexual encounters were consensual. Vann, who resigned the same month the lawsuit was filed, said he admitted to his actions and has been trying to move forward. Despite his admission, Vann said he feels some of the details in the lawsuit were “piled on” and incorrect.

“I made mistakes. I regret it. I am sorry for it,” Vann said. “I don’t know what else I can say.”

Reynolds, one of the women in the suit, said knowing the men weren’t prosecuted makes her feel like there’s been no justice, like her life didn’t matter.

She served time in three federal facilities for a felony firearm possession charge. The Coleman women’s camp has about 500 inmates and is a minimum-security prison.

Reynolds said that officers were allowed to freely roam the compound even after they were reprimanded for sexual encounters with inmates. So the abuse kept on, even though some of the accused officers had faced similar allegations before, according to the lawsuit.

“When you get away with something, most human nature is to keep doing it,” Reynolds said.

The lawsuit came together as the group of women slowly began confiding in each other, and the circle grew wider. Making the choice to move forward and publicly was nerve-wracking, Reynolds said, especially because at the time all the women were still in prison. They worried they’d be sent to the county jail, disrupting their work programs.

At least four of the women are still incarcerated.

• • •

Julie Abbate is the national policy director for Just Detention International, an advocacy group that aims to end sexual abuse in detention facilities. She said sex between an officer and an inmate is inherently non-consensual because of the power dynamic. The women’s lives depend on the people who abuse them.

She said the first step when an officer is discovered to have violated policy is to fire them — but that too often officers are allowed to resign. It’s then common for them to work in another correctional facility.

The accused officers at Coleman are not listed as defendants in the lawsuit and are only referred to in the suit by last names.

“It seems like there’s much more staff sexual abuse going on than is prosecuted,” said Abbate, who worked for the U.S. Department of Justice for 15 years investigating sexual abuse in women’s prisons. “It’s rape cases, and those are difficult to get a prosecutor to take. Especially when you’ve got the word of a law enforcement officer over the word of an inmate, that’s a really uphill battle.”

Bryan Busch, the attorney representing most of the women who filed suit, said he’s not sure why the officers who admitted to sexual misconduct have not faced criminal charges.

“They should be conducting a thorough and exhaustive investigation of their employees, just like the Department of Justice did of my clients when they sentenced them to jail,” he said.

Phil Reizenstein, another attorney representing one of the plaintiffs, said he also wasn’t sure why the officers weren’t prosecuted. But the fact that several women detailed the same systemic method of abuse could be corroborating evidence, he said.

“Prison is designed to punish and rehabilitate, not rob somebody of their dignity,” he said. “That’s what happened here.”

• • •

Maggie Leon, 42, said she felt targeted by officers almost immediately after entering the Coleman prison in 2013 on charges of Medicare fraud. For five years, multiple officers would force her into sex acts in “blind spot” areas around the facility, she maintained in the lawsuit.

The government filing says that Officers Palomares, Campbell and Laudenslager, who Leon accused of abuse, admitted to having sexual contact with her. She thought she alone had faced rampant abuse. She realized as more women came forward and joined the lawsuit that she had served time alongside other victims for years and had never known.

“For a while, I thought that if I put up with it, it would prevent someone else from going through it,” Leon said.

In court records, the government says the men denied using threats, force or coercion.

Leon said she remained silent for years, for fear of repercussions. She didn’t want to be transferred to another prison farther from her family, she said.

“That was a chance that I was not willing to take at that time,” Leon said. “My family was more important.”

She said she’s still processing the news that the officers weren’t punished, despite their admissions.

“At this point, it’s something that I can’t change and that I live with every day,” she said. “I have nightmares about it every night. It’s kind of like adding insult to injury.”

Federal correctional officers have been arrested for this kind of abuse. In July, an officer at FCI Tallahassee was charged with two counts of sexual abuse of a ward. The case is still ongoing. Fourteen years earlier at the same prison, a shootout occurred between a prison officer and federal agents when the FBI tried to arrest multiple officers who had allegedly been coercing female inmates into sex.

Claiming that the officers at Coleman didn’t use their power and authority to force women into having sex is offensive, said Busch, the attorney representing the women.

“The facts don’t support that,” he said. “Common sense doesn’t support it.”

• • •

Reynolds said the officers at Coleman often used threats of isolation as a scare tactic to keep women from coming forward. There was also the fear of repercussions from other staff.

“Basically, you get treated like you have a scarlet letter,” said Reynolds. “Staff won’t assist you. They won’t help you. You’re just looked at like the plague.”

Or maybe no one will believe what they have to say.

When Officer Phillips ordered an inmate to a landscaping trailer, he locked the door and forced her to have sex, according to the lawsuit. Afterward, he said, “you know they’ve accused me before of rape, but they’re never going to believe you,” the lawsuit contends.

As the lawsuit moves forward — online through Zoom conferences during the pandemic — Reynolds said she wants to advocate for women in prison and bring awareness to the sexual assault they often face. She was set to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress before the coronavirus derailed the plans.

“You go there to serve a sentence,” Reynolds said. “You don’t go there to come out worse than when you came in.”