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Nearly 200 Women Have Told of Being Raped, Abused in a Georgia Prison Scandal So Broad Even Officials Say It’s . . . : A 13-Year Nightmare

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Outside, the prison resembles nothing so much as a low-lying suburban office park or a modern middle school. It sits in a wooded area far off the main road south of Milledgeville, acentral Georgia town of antebellum mansions and a distinctly Southern air.

Five prisons are clustered here, not counting a youth detention facility, making the care and feeding of convicts the economic lifeblood of the area. In such a setting, the Georgia Women’s Correctional Institution is an utterly unremarkable presence.

Its appearance is at odds, however, with the image conjured by stories of late--stories of rape, of pregnancies and forced abortions, of women prisoners left stripped and bound for weeks.

The women--Jane Does, they are called--have been coming forward for months, almost 200 in all. They tell of women treated like dogs, bound and fed from dishes shoved under their faces; of guards photographing women engaged in sex acts; of inmates being taken off the grounds to work as prostitutes.

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The allegations, in their totality, suggest a prison out of control, a place where even the men in charge--and, perhaps significantly, they were men--tolerated, if not condoned, rampant abuse for at least 13 years.

“They allowed this whole culture of abuse (to develop),” says Robert Cullen, a legal services attorney representing the inmates in a class-action lawsuit. “Abuse was OK. It didn’t matter. . . . Everybody became sort of inoculated to the abuse that was ongoing.”

Sex between guards and female inmates is a given in prison--whether consensual or coerced, it has always taken place. A number of states, including California, Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan and New York, have had similar controversies. But Brenda Smith, director of the Women in Prison Project of the National Women’s Law Center, says she knows of no investigation as widespread as the one in Georgia.

For a long time, prison officials here did not want to believe the allegations of sexual abuse. Now, they are convinced a good number are true. Allen Ault, special assistant to the corrections commissioner appointed in October to address the problem, says he has talked with some of the women and “most of the stories that I’ve heard have been credible.”

At least partly acknowledging the problem, state prison officials fired one warden and demoted another Dec. 7 because of their poor stewardship. Also, 14 prison employees were indicted last month for abusing inmates.

The report of one former prisoner, 29-year-old Phyllis Hoffman, is typical. Hoffman, now a waitress in a south Georgia short-order restaurant, says she was raped by a guard while on a work detail on the prison grounds.

The guard, Michael Harvey, allegedly forced her to have sex after taking her into the woods to collect pine straw, says Hoffman, who was imprisoned for possession of crack cocaine. But she says the harassment began long before that.

“He slung his authority around, got people scared of him,” she says of Harvey, whom she also alleges forcefully kissed her twice, once wrapping a towel around her neck and pushing her against a wall.

Rather than report the assaults, Hoffman says, she “played sick” to keep from going on work details and was transferred to another prison.

“A lot of things happened to me when I was young that made me keep quiet,” notes Hoffman, who says she was raped as a child. “I felt like if I said anything, nobody would have believed me.”

She recently filed a $1.5-million lawsuit against the prison system, alleging “a policy of indifference that permitted female prisoners to be used for sexual gratification by prison officers and employees.”

Harvey, who has been fired, has denied misconduct and appealed his dismissal. He has been charged with aggravated sodomy, rape, sodomy and sexual assault against a person in custody.

At a recent appeals hearing on the firing of another guard, Lt. James Philyaw, an inmate trembled as she testified.

“I hate him,” said the woman, identified only as Jane Doe 14. “He used his power against many women in that prison. He used us like we were whores.”

What is different about these allegations is not only their depth and breadth, but also the duration of the abuse, says Cullen.

Some allegations go back to 1979, even before a similar prison scandal resulted in the firing of a deputy warden and the passing of legislation making it a felony for guards to engage in sex with prisoners, one of the few such laws in the nation.

But critics say the law had little effect within the facility: Sexual abuse was unabated. And although in some cases sexual relations between inmates and staff were consensual, corrections officials say that also will no longer be tolerated.

Officials say the problems here are a manifestation of strains that affected women’s prisons nationally during the 1980s, as their combined population tripled to a record 40,556--mostly the result of a staggering 307% increase in women’s drug arrests. Prison staffing and training lagged.

Ault acknowledges that the Georgia system was slow to react but insists it is improving. The investigation that resulted in November’s indictments has been widened to include two other women’s facilities. Since March, a steady stream of women have taken polygraph tests or given sworn statements implicating about 50 prison employees. Ten people have been fired, nine have resigned, five have been transferred, and six have been suspended. Additional indictments are expected.

Mary Esposito, a moderate, veteran administrator, was brought in last April to serve as warden at the Georgia Women’s Correctional Institution. She installed a new administrative team and is instituting reforms designed to regain inmates’ trust.

Cullen complains that progress is too slow, but an inmate who watched as Esposito and Deputy Warden Sonya Love were photographed in the prison yard one recent afternoon had a different assessment.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better,” says the woman, who has been incarcerated for six years. “Those are the best two females. I believe God sent them to us.”

Although the allegations of blatant sexual misconduct have received the most attention, some of the most troubling charges involve the treatment of women deemed suicidal.

These women were stripped, placed in straitjackets and bound by chains for days--a practice Cullen calls “hog-tying.” Esposito prefers to say the women were “restrained.” Both agree the practice was inappropriately used.

At least one woman alleges she was stripped and restrained because she refused a guard’s sexual advances. If prison logs are to be believed, Cullen says, the practice was widespread and women were bound for up to 20 days, sometimes not even being freed to eat or go to the bathroom.

Of the decade she spent earlier as warden of a men’s prison, Esposito recalls, “I don’t know of a time in the years I was there that we had an inmate naked in a cell.”

In the future, she says, it will be the women’s prison’s policy to take the “least precaution necessary” to restrain a potentially suicidal inmate, and the inmate will be given a paper robe. She also says she will require documentation to justify the decision to use restraints.

Georgia prison officials insist the Milledgeville facility is no worse than the nation’s other women’s prisons. Women are coming forward here with so many allegations, Esposito says, only because “the time is right.”

Women’s issues, from sexual harassment to domestic abuse, dominate public discourse as never before, she says: “You can’t turn on the talk shows without hearing about domestic violence. . . . Society is starting to address women’s issues.”

Indeed, the scandal--and the state’s long denial of a problem--has touched “a deep well of anger” in Georgia women, says Murphy Davis, state director of Southern Prison Ministries, one of a number of organizations that have formed the Coalition for Justice for Women Behind Bars. The coalition, which includes the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Women’s Policy Group, the Coalition of 100 Black Women and religious groups, lobbies for reform in women’s corrections.

One of the tragedies is that the women often come to prison after a lifetime of abuse, says Davis.

Sherry Shepherd, prison coordinator for drug treatment and education, says about 80% of the inmates have been involved with drugs, and about the same percentage are survivors of incest, domestic violence or sexual abuse.

“Many of these are fragile young women,” notes Ault.

According to Davis, a major part of the problem is that the prison has been run almost exclusively by white men.

“Men are the women’s keepers and completely control their present and their futures,” she argues. “That is an invitation to abuse. . . . This is as exaggerated, as distorted, a power relationship as you can get. You literally have people who have keys and power who have control over women who have absolutely no power.”

Interestingly, Esposito was first given the opportunity to manage the prison in 1981, soon after the current problems came to light. She turned it down then, she says, to avoid being pigeonholed as a women’s warden.

Although she hesitates to say that things would have been different under her watch, she notes, “Nationally, women’s issues have not been addressed the way they should’ve been addressed (in prisons). I would like to think I would’ve been a voice helping to draw attention to the issues.”

As women’s prisons have filled to capacity, Esposito says, many states have not dealt with the fact that it costs more to incarcerate a woman than a man. In part, this is caused by the economics of scale--women constitute only about 6% of the U.S. prison population--and by women requiring more health services than men, she says.

In addition, because there are fewer women’s prisons, most have broadly defined missions, Esposito notes. Unlike specialized men’s facilities, her prison houses the young, the old, the mentally ill, the chronically ill and the acutely ill. This makes the prison more difficult to manage and puts greater stress on the staff, she contends.

An easy solution might be to hire only female guards, but prison officials say that doing so could subject them to sexual discrimination charges. They also note that four women were among the 14 staff members indicted for sexual assault.

Nevertheless, they are studying which prison jobs might be made gender-specific without violating civil rights laws.

“We’re trying to decrease the possibility that males and females will be alone,” Esposito says. “We’ll never stop it, but I think there are a number of things we can do that can decrease it.”

Shockingly, even now there are indications that some guards continue to abuse inmates.

“There is an element, if you’re a perpetrator, that you can’t get caught,” Esposito says, explaining the psychology of guards who carry on sexually with prisoners despite investigations, indictments and widespread attention.

“Some people can’t break patterns,” she explains, “and I hate to say it, but there’s an element of not being very bright.”

Meanwhile, Love, the prison’s deputy warden, predicts the facility will emerge from the scandal better than ever. “There will be attention to women’s needs,” she argues.

Some reforms already have been implemented; for example, the prison’s population--thanks to the accelerated opening of a new facility--has decreased since April from 920 to a more manageable 720. Esposito’s goal is to lower it to 660.

In addition, abused inmates have been offered psychological counseling and support groups have been formed to deal with what Esposito calls “survivor-type issues,” such as domestic violence. Staff training has increased, and Esposito says she wants to institute programs on substance abuse and women’s medical issues.

Another issue that Esposito hopes to address is the institution’s high recidivism rate.

“That’s a concern,” she acknowledges. “A high percentage of (inmates) are coming back. . . . We hope to develop a model institution, offering people an opportunity to leave better prepared than when they came and not make the same mistakes that got them here.”

Cullen, however, dismisses the changes as insignificant, saying, “They have acknowledged a problem at this point. Now the question becomes what they’re going to do to fix the problem. Is the fix going to be real, or will it be a paper fix?”

Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this story.


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