Have You Experienced Sexual Assault Or Abuse?

Rights and Options for Victims of Abuse at the California Institution for Women

Inmates of the California Institution for Women have alleged that corrections officers sexually abused them and staff ignored their complaints. If you or a loved one were the victims of sexual abuse at a women’s correctional facility, Helping Survivors can help you understand your rights and the avenues for pursuing justice and compensation.

Inmates have made several sexual assault and abuse allegations against the California Institution for Women, also known as CIW. These women and other victims have legal rights and are starting to sue CIW in state or federal court.

Women incarcerated at CIW allege that corrections officers sexually assaulted them and engaged in other forms of sexual abuse at the prison. They also allege that other guards and officials, including the warden, neglected their abuse and punished them for reporting it.

The officers’ actions at CIW have resulted in criminal convictions, settlements, pending criminal charges, and ongoing civil litigation. Unfortunately, this type of experience is all too common among inmates at this prison and other correctional facilities.

Common Forms of Sexual Abuse in Women’s Correctional Facilities

Sexual abuse encompasses numerous acts by corrections officers in women’s correctional facilities. Inmates’ constitutional rights are violated when officers engage in conduct such as the following:

Staff-Inmate Relationships

It is illegal under the California Penal Code and federal law for staff to have intimate relationships with inmates. These laws recognize the power dynamic in prisons between staff and inmates. While some perpetrators have tried to use it as a defense, inmates cannot consent to sexual activity with facility staff in such cases.

Sexual Exploitation

Sexual exploitation is the use of a position of power to coerce someone into sexual acts. For example, a correctional officer may withhold access to food or privileges unless an inmate agrees to sexual acts.

Voyeurism

Voyeurism involves correctional officers viewing inmates while they are dressing or in other instances where they reveal parts of their bodies for reasons unrelated to their official duties or for sexual gratification. In some cases of voyeurism, officers take videos of inmates.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault involves unwanted sexual contact. Examples of sexual assault include unwanted penetration, touching, or fondling. California has criminalized sexual battery, which is a form of sexual assault.

Sexual Harassment

Women in prisons are victims of sexual harassment, such as comments or gestures about their bodies. Unwanted sexual advances are also a form of sexual harassment, as is indecent exposure.

Coercion and Threats

There are several ways corrections officers can coerce or threaten inmates, such as threatening solitary confinement or taking away visitation privileges. At least one CIW inmate alleges in a lawsuit that some of her “good time” was taken away, in essence extending her sentence, after she reported sexual abuse.

Last Date Modified
March 18, 2024
Content Reviewed By:

Kathryn Kosmides
Managing Director | Helping Survivors

Why Sexual Abuse in Correctional Facilities Occurs at High Rates

According to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report, there were more than 40,000 complaints by inmates of staff sexual misconduct and staff sexual harassment just from 2016 through 2018. The actual number is likely much higher, as many inmates do not report sexual abuse.

A United States Senate staff report on sexual abuse of female inmates in federal prisons found that employees abused inmates in two-thirds of federal facilities. The report mentions the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, California, where several officers and the warden were convicted or are facing charges of sexual abuse.

The high level of sexual abuse in correctional facilities is due to several factors, including the following:

  • Power dynamics  
  • Fear of retaliation 
  • Lack of oversight and supervision 
  • Inadequate background checks on staff
  • Inadequate policies and procedures
  • Inmate mental health issues
  • Inmate substance abuse issues
  • Failure to investigate or not reporting complaints to state or federal officials

The power inherent in their positions and prison policies—both written and unwritten—enable offenders to commit and continue sexual abuse. The abuse persists despite legislation, such as the Prison Rape Elimination Act, aimed at reducing sexual abuse in correctional facilities.

A lack of technology also plays a part in inmate abuse. A Prison Rape Elimination Act audit of CIW found that the facility lacks video monitoring in several areas where abuse can take place. 

The audit also found 38 allegations of staff-on-inmate sexual abuse and 10 cases of alleged staff-on-inmate sexual harassment in just one year.

Timeline of Allegations Against California Institution for Women

Several women who served or are serving time have made claims against CIW. These are only the claims publicly reported and do not represent the number of actual cases of sexual abuse at the facility.

2020

Keiana Aldrich filed suit against three guards who allegedly sexually assaulted her. She further alleged that three other employees and the warden ignored her complaints. Aldrich also asserts she was sent to solitary confinement and had time added to her sentence for filing sexual abuse complaints.

2017

During just one year, three officers were dismissed for sexual abuse at CIW.

  • Officer Robert Darrow was accused of sexually assaulting an inmate after pulling her into a closet. The district attorney dropped the charges against him despite prosecutors alleging a history of investigations over his sexual impropriety with inmates.
  • Officer Tony Garcia was accused of forcing an inmate to perform oral sex. The inmate provided DNA evidence to investigators. Garcia served two days in jail and received probation.
  • Officer Stephen Merrill was accused of groping two inmates in their cells. He received a two-year suspended prison sentence while he completes three years of probation. He also received less than a year of county jail time.

2016

An inmate accused Officer Michael Ewell of sexually assaulting her for months. She filed a federal lawsuit. Court records indicate that the case was settled in 2018, though terms were not disclosed.

2012

Officer Gary Swatzell sexually assaulted several female inmates and impregnated one of them. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years in prison. The victims also filed suit against Warden Guillermo Garcia for ignoring their complaints.

Compensation Available For Victims of Sexual Abuse at CIW

Victims of sexual abuse at CIW can file lawsuits in state or federal court. They can seek the same damages as unincarcerated victims, including the following:

  • Medical bills and future medical costs
  • Lost wages if they miss work after work while dealing with trauma
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional distress
  • Punitive damages

California Civil Code section 3294 allows for the recovery of punitive damages if you can show through clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with oppression, fraud, or malice. 

In 2021, California enacted Assembly Bill No. 1455, changing the statute of limitations for prison sexual abuse cases. It allows victims to sue within 10 years after an officer is convicted of sexual assault or another crime that originally included a sexual assault charge. It also allows the victim to sue within 10 years after the officer leaves their job.

The law is retroactive, reviving cases where victims couldn’t sue under previous law. Thus, victims who were afraid to report previously their abuse now have a chance to file claims.

If you are considering filing a lawsuit, consult an experienced civil rights attorney who specializes in sexual abuse and assault cases. They understand state and federal laws concerning inmate rights and sexual abuse cases. A skilled and knowledgeable civil rights attorney will have deep experience handling these delicate matters with professionalism and compassion. Free and paid consultations are available, and anything you discuss is entirely confidential.

Once you partner with an attorney, they take over the legal aspects of your case. Attorneys with experience in sexual abuse cases understand what you are going through and will support you during every phase of your case. They can help you negotiate a settlement or be the voice you need at trial.

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Understand your legal rights and options as a survivor of sexual assault and abuse.