The policy from the federal Bureau of Prisons is clear: “There is never any such thing as consensual sex between staff and inmates.” Yet a recent lawsuit in federal court alleges that officers at Coleman federal prison in Sumter County sexually assaulted or abused 15 female inmates, according to a Tampa Bay Times story by reporter Romy Ellenbogen. Some of the officers admitted to violating the policy, though none were prosecuted criminally. Many resigned or retired, with few negative ramifications; victims still have to live with the consequences. Women like these deserve better, which starts with harsher penalties for officers who prey on inmates.
The 15 female inmates were as young as 26 and as old as 59, according to the lawsuit filed in December. Parts of the prison system were a “sanctuary” for abusers, in some cases dating back to 2012, the lawsuit said. One officer, Christopher Palomares, is accused of sexual abuse by 10 women. The government acknowledged that he had sexual conduct with seven of them. One woman alleged that Palomares would force her into private rooms and coerce her into performing oral sex, something that took place for four years, starting in 2014. The government admitted in its July court filing that prison officials looked into cases of sexual misconduct involving some of the officers mentioned in the lawsuit, but those investigations “were not sustained.” The lawsuit next goes to a settlement conference in November. If the plaintiffs do not settle, a trial could begin in early 2022.
The problem here is, why was no further action taken? In similar instances, other federal correctional officers have been arrested. In July, a federal corrections officer was charged with two counts of sexual abuse while on temporary duty in Tallahassee. But the national policy director for a group focused on ending sexual abuse in detention facilities acknowledged that these cases are often hard to get a prosecutor to take on. “Especially when you’ve got the word of a law enforcement officer over the word of an inmate,” said Julie Abbate of Just Detention International, “that’s a really uphill battle.” In many cases, officers will simply deny that the encounter happened, but even when they do admit it, they often say it wasn’t forced, according to the lawsuit.
The officers were in a position of power over these women. They could make prison life easier or harder, depending on whether the women did what they asked. No wonder the women in the lawsuit feared retribution if they came forward. No inmate should be put in the position of feeling like they have to engage in sex with the officers who are responsible for their well-being. It’s the definition of a coercive relationship. The officers should face more than just losing their jobs.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.