Behind bars, sex charges the air
Whether it was forced or in exchange for perks, the acts between guards and inmates were never legal. And before anything got fixed, two people were dead and five arrested.
By TAMARA LUSH
Published September 24, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - For the past 10 years, dozens of female inmates serving time at the minimum-security federal prison here have been sexually abused by the very people in charge of them: prison staff members.
Some women at the Federal Correctional Institution said they were forced to have sex; others said they had consensual relationships with corrections officers - although it is a federal crime for an officer to have sex with an inmate, consensual or not. Many women had sex in exchange for money, perfume and Victoria's Secret lingerie.
Some prison insiders say the sexually charged atmosphere caused so many problems that it ultimately compromised prison security and ended with the deaths of two federal employees in a shootout June 21.
"This has been building up," said Carol Walkerfountaine, a retired federal corrections lieutenant who worked at the women's prison in Tallahassee from 1997 to 2006. "Someone should ask the question, what sparked the shooting?"
The answer: sex and contraband. Prison officials were seemingly aggressive in investigating and arresting or ridding the facility of those accused of sexual misconduct, but did not do the one thing that would have reduced the problem: crack down on prohibited items that were brought into the prison.
"It was a total breakdown," said Walkerfountaine.
The sexual encounters happened all over the prison - in cells and offices, in prison vehicles and the laundry room. Some staff members had sex with two inmates at a time and in at least one case, an inmate got pregnant and demanded an abortion.
Some women say they were put in solitary confinement for revealing their sexual relationships; others said they were transferred to other prisons around the country as punishment for talking.
But the prisoners weren't the only victims: At least one officer was wrongly accused by inmates in retaliation for being strict. Walkerfountaine said she, too, was harassed after bringing allegations about other staffers to prison administrators.
The federal Bureau of Prisons would not comment on the decadelong pattern of sexual misconduct, saying the majority of the staff are well-trained and law abiding. Still, the BOP acknowledged that federal agents continue to investigate at the prison, which holds 1,000 inmates.
"It's important to understand that we take all allegations of misconduct very seriously and investigate all complaints and, when appropriate, refer cases to the U.S. Attorney's Office for possible prosecution," said Mark Kirby, a BOP spokesman.
While such misconduct has been documented around the nation - 12 percent of cases handled by the federal Office of Inspector General involve sexual misconduct - the problems in Tallahassee have been pervasive.
Court documents revealed that 13 men have been charged with having sex with inmates since 1996 and inmates have filed complaints against at least four other staffers. Those records do not reveal the number of employees who resigned or were fired and never prosecuted.
Staff members say that the shooting and much of the sexual misconduct would not have happened if prison administrators had strictly enforced the rules.
"I knew there was going to be a serious incident at that facility. I thought it was going to be inmate on staff, due to the lack of security and supervision of inmates. I didn't think it would be staff on staff or agency on agency," said a 30-year corrections officer who asked to remain anonymous for fear he would lose his job if he spoke publicly.
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Women were introduced to the Tallahassee Federal Correctional Institution in 1995. Many of the same officers and staff continued to work inside the minimum-security facility after the change.
Problems arose almost immediately.
One officer who worked in the prison's Special Investigative Office said she wrote 30 memos in those early years regarding sexual misconduct allegations involving one staff member who was never charged or dismissed.
Another officer was charged with having sex with four inmates in 1997. That officer's trial and subsequent appeals lasted several years; his case was eventually dismissed by a judge. During that time, at least three other officers were charged and convicted of having sex with inmates.
All prison officers are warned repeatedly not to develop personal relationships with inmates. They are taught tactics inmates use to manipulate the system.
Yet inmates were allowed to modify their tan uniforms and wear them tight and low-cut, and many roamed virtually unchecked around the compound. Staff members were not subject to search upon entering the facility, allowing staff to bring in contraband by the bagful.
In 2005, after analyzing five years worth of sexual misconduct cases inside federal prisons, the Department of Justice determined that staff sexual misconduct is a "significant problem" in facilities nationwide.
Federal agents investigated 351 federal employees who were accused of having sex with inmates both male and female from 2000 to 2004. Many of those cases were dropped because of a lack of evidence.
The true scope of sexual misconduct is unknown because such incidents are under-reported, investigators say.
"Inmates fear that staff will retaliate against them if they bring forward allegations of sexual abuse," the report stated. "Inmates also believe that investigators will not find their allegations credible."
In addition to being corrosive from a security standpoint, sex between guards and inmates is also damaging psychologically. The DOJ report acknowledged that inmates "may experience deep psychological and emotional trauma by being sexually abused in prison."
Experts say that these incidents cause inmates to lose what little trust they have in the system and changes the hierarchy of power within the facility. Even inmates - and staffers - who don't participate in the illegal activity are adversely affected.
"It's like a massive cancer that permeates throughout the facility," said prison consultant and former warden Jim Aiken, who is also on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. "It's just like having a big hole in your fence."
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Bobbi Bolton was 36 when she was sentenced to serve 10 months at the Tallahassee prison on a probation violation charge. She was hopeful that this would be her last time in prison, buoyed by enrollment in a drug treatment program that allowed her a private cell.
Her problem with Officer Jeffrey Linton started several months after her arrival in late 2001.
"He just began to make advances toward me, saying things like a man would say to a woman on the street. 'You look good, you look pretty,' " she recalled. "At first, I just kind of shrugged it off. Usually if you let an officer know you're not with that, they would leave you alone."
But Linton didn't leave her alone. He told her that he wanted to lick ice cream off her body. He came into her room one night.
"He told me to get down off my bed and that's when he forced me to have sex. He didn't use a condom," she said. "When he left I just took a shower. I was just crying and crying."
Bolton said Linton came back about a week later. When they finished having sex, she made sure some of his semen was on her gown and underwear. She sent the soiled garments to her lawyer in Texas, then reported Linton.
Bolton was placed in solitary confinement in July 2002. She stayed there until her release in October.
Linton was charged with a misdemeanor - not with a felony rape - and pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to 24 months' probation.
Bolton later sued the federal Bureau of Prisons. The bureau settled out of court for $35,000.
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Unlike Bolton, many inmates believe their sexual relationships are consensual.
But under federal law and in the eyes of inmate advocates, there is no such thing as a consensual relationship between an inmate and a staff member. Inmates who have sex with prison employees often are alcoholics, drug users or have histories of sexual or physical abuse, making them susceptible to coercion.
"Men use their power to turn the inmates into sex slaves," said Ashley Turner, a former Tallahassee inmate living in Rome, Ga. "These women were found guilty of a crime. They were not sentenced to be sexually exploited."
Turner refused sex with officers. An officer asked her to strip and touch herself, she said. She has filed a lawsuit over that incident.
"There is an inherent vulnerability of someone who is incarcerated," said Kathy Hall Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles group Stop Prison Rape. "Normal rules, so to speak, of human sexual interaction are thrown out the window."
Some inmates have another reason they do not report their trysts - they receive perks or goods as compensation for sex. At the Tallahassee prison, inmates exchanged sex for prohibited and hard-to-obtain items. Some were luxuries, such as brand-name bras, panties and perfume; others were illegal, such as marijuana.
A 2005 federal report to Congress said that in more than half of sexual misconduct cases, the staff member brought contraband inside the prison. "Many of these staff members helped inmates conceal contraband by alerting the inmates to unannounced searches or by storing the contraband with the staff's own possessions," the report stated.
That certainly was the case in Tallahassee. Staff members were not searched for contraband or weapons because the BOP felt it would be harmful to staff morale.
"When I was working there, I was shocked that the staff didn't get shook down," said retired Tallahassee prison officer Garry Jones. "It cuts back on the contraband. If you cut back on the contraband, you might not have as much sex."
Said one officer, who still works at the prison: "Every administration has been blind to the problems and the permissive atmosphere. Inmates were treated like girlfriends, wives and everything else."
Union Representative Dan Bethea, who bargains for 33,000 federal prison employees, said that Tallahassee's problems were no greater than any other federal prison.
Former and current guards also said that the prison was trying to do more with less due to federal budget cuts; staffing levels were low. Sometimes, only one officer was in charge of hundreds of inmates during a shift, making it difficult for anyone to know what was going on in other parts of the facility.
Retired Lt. Walkerfountaine and others tried to bring order to the facility, scolding inmates when they would flirt with male staff members. As a supervisor, she felt that her ability to search staff members was limited; staff members threatened to file grievances with the union if someone checked their bags, she said.
Inmates told Walkerfountaine about the sexual escapades; Walkerfountaine told administrators.
She said that after she butted heads with some of the other officers, she was harassed: Photos of naked women showed up in her mailbox and she received sexually suggestive e-mails. She was also reprimanded and removed from supervising the female facility and sent to the men's jail (on the same property) after a dispute with another guard whom she suspected of having inappropriate conduct with an inmate.
Meanwhile, investigators were looking into even more serious misconduct elsewhere in the prison.
Five longtime officers - all of them military veterans, all of them family men, one of them an ordained minister - were having sex with inmates, in exchange for cash, marijuana and alcohol. The officers set up an elaborate system of using money orders for payment and inmates' relatives for delivery. They used other inmates as lookouts and passed notes from guard to inmate like teenagers in study hall.
These officers also listened to inmates' phone calls and bribed other inmates not to disclose the sexual bartering that was taking place. A sixth officer, Vincent Johnson, didn't have sex with anyone, but he pressured an inmate not to cooperate with investigators.
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On June 21, during the 7 a.m. shift change, federal agents drove into the parking lot. They had federal arrest warrants for the six men who were charged with bribing inmates for sex and threatening them not to talk: Alfred Barnes, Gregory Dixon, Ralph Hill, Johnson, Alan Moore and E. Lavon Spence.
No one anticipated that one officer - Ralph Hill - had smuggled his personal gun inside the facility in a duffle bag; no weapons were allowed inside the facility.
As the agents went to arrest Hill, he fired. Federal agents fired back. Hill was killed and so was William "Buddy" Sentner, an agent with the Office of Inspector General. A third prison guard was wounded.
The other five guards - who did not participate in the shooting - were arrested. Two have pleaded guilty and the other three are scheduled for trial in October.
Within a month of the shooting, the Bureau of Prisons made some changes.
Now staff must pass through metal detectors before entering the prison, and all bags are X-rayed and occasionally searched. Said prison spokesman Kirby: "The misconduct that has occurred in the past, while involving only a minuscule number of staff, has caused us to reconsider this issue and institute this change."
But Bethea, the union official, said the new procedures are a "knee jerk reaction" to the shooting.
"They are not searching people for contraband."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8612.