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Report details women's accounts of sexual misconduct by staff in Massachusetts prisons and jails

Jonathan Wiggs
The Boston Globe via Getty Images

A report obtained by WBUR attempts to document what’s often a hidden problem: sexual misconduct against women incarcerated in Massachusetts.

The research, from Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, is based on interviews with 22 women, either currently or formerly incarcerated in prisons and jails across the state. Of the women interviewed, the vast majority — 19 women — said they had either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or sexual violence while in custody.

The women provided detailed descriptions of the alleged misconduct by correction officers and other staff, including harassment.

“Officers frequently use misogynistic language when referring to incarcerated women,” the report said. “Officers also use their positions of power to leer at and comment on incarcerated women’s bodies in a sexual manner. Incarcerated women report that officers have become verbally and physically abusive during unclothed searches.”

The women who agreed to be interviewed for the report were granted anonymity. Many of their accounts have not been independently verified or documented — a common challenge because sexual misconduct typically happens in private.

The report argues that the problem is underreported because many women fear retaliation or don’t think they’ll be believed if they come forward.

A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Correction said the agency has not yet reviewed the report, but the department does not tolerate any form of sexual abuse or harassment. “We are committed to preventing, detecting, and responding to any such conduct,” the spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.

In addition to women’s correctional facilities, the report also found that transgender women incarcerated in men’s prisons are likely to face sexual violence from both incarcerated men and from correction officers.

The report points out the alleged misconduct by staff is against the law, but found it “continually occurs with impunity.” The people interviewed for the report described the conduct as “ubiquitous” and said they felt they were “without any recourse.”

The report contains summaries of the interviews in which women allege being harassed and assaulted at various state facilities. One woman, known in the report only by the letter “D,” said she was assaulted during a search for contraband at MCI-Framingham, the state prison for women.

“During a strip search, two officers raped her with a flashlight,” the report said. “As a result of the rape, ‘D’ bled and was unable to walk correctly. Staff did not take her to a hospital until a week later. At the hospital, doctors prescribed cream for her vaginal injuries; this was the first treatment she received.”

The report said “D” disclosed the incident to prison authorities, but was not aware of any investigation. The woman also alleged that officers retaliated against her for reporting the rape by yelling at her and refusing to give her medicine she needed.

Staff at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts said “D” told her story during an interview and they did not find records of an investigation, and they did not obtain medical records. In some cases, researchers were able to confirm some details from the interviews.

The report’s author, attorney Sarah Nawab, said she is concerned the problem is systemic, in a setting where mostly men oversee the women in custody. With statistics showing that the majority of incarcerated women have a history of sexual trauma, Nawab said the culture inside jails and prisons does not help women improve their lives.

“It doesn’t alleviate harm. It’s not rehabilitative. It’s trauma-inducing and triggering,” Nawab said.

In preparing the report, Nawab also compiled surveys from 10 women and filed public records requests for details about sexual misconduct complaints and investigations. Nawab said documenting the problem is difficult because the investigation process is not transparent.

“When you review those investigations what you see is that they’re not helpful — language is dismissive, security camera footage is not reviewed and the actual investigations seem retaliatory,” Nawab said. “There seems to be more of a focus on sweeping these issues under the rug rather than helping women who have gone through these traumatic experiences.”

Several formerly incarcerated women, not involved with the report, told WBUR that sexual misconduct is a significant and underreported problem in state facilities.

Leslie Credle, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Justice 4 Housing, spent a year at MCI-Framingham in 2014, before she was sentenced to federal prison. Credle, who was not interviewed for the report, said a main reason why incarcerated women don’t report sexual misconduct is because when they do, they sometimes are removed from the general prison population, placed in solitary confinement and essentially penalized for coming forward.

“The women get put in ‘the hole’ until they’re done investigating,” Credle said. “And that could take a year or two. I witnessed at least four of five instances of it.”

Another formerly incarcerated woman, who doesn’t want her name used because she fears she could become the target of harassment, said she frequently witnessed correctional staff providing women with gifts and other objects in exchange for sex.

“Mostly what I saw in prison were secret sexual relationships between COs [correction officers] and women,” said the woman, who was not involved with the Prisoners’ Legal Services report. “A lot of people know what’s going on. You see officers hanging around talking to someone for hours and then she suddenly has lipstick, beauty supplies and Victoria’s Secret lingerie.”

The woman, who was released in 2020 after five years at MCI-Framingham, said while there is a grievance process, most women don’t file complaints because they could lose their prison jobs or privileges such as visiting time and phone calls. She said officers who faced sexual misconduct allegations routinely did not receive consequences.

“A lot of girls were scared to report it because they would wind up in ‘the hole,’ or constantly get their cells raided or something,” the woman said. “The officer is sometimes removed, so he doesn’t interact with women while there is an investigation. Then the officer always ends up coming out clean.”

A spokesperson for the state Department of Correction said it “investigates every allegation of sexual abuse by staff or other inmates in a confidential and professional manner.”

The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed by Congress in 2003, requires correctional facilities to monitor complaints of sexual misconduct and their outcomes. It also calls for zero tolerance policies toward sexual misconduct, and procedures to prevent and monitor sexual violence.

In its latest annual report, the Department of Correction said Massachusetts is one of the few correctional agencies around the country that has all of its facilities accredited through the federal Department of Justice and the American Correctional Association.

The 2021 report, which includes allegations from both incarcerated men and women, listed 100 reports of violations — 49 involving staff. Of those, jail and prison investigators determined that only three were likely to have occurred.

Fewer than 600 women are currently in custody in Massachusetts jails and prisons. Many women detainees — both in Massachusetts and nationwide — have experienced mental health issues and share a history of trauma and sexual violence. According to Prisoner’s Legal Services of Massachusetts, those factors exacerbate the effects of sexual harassment and violence and affect a prisoner’s willingness to file formal complaints.

The nonprofit legal and advocacy group said it has received 20 complaints related to sexual assault and harassment from incarcerated women over the past five years but has so far been unable to pursue a legal case. One of the main obstacles is that many women are unwilling to be publicly identified.

“I think sexual misconduct happens with some regularity, and we have been unable to represent women in a brutality lawsuit like we do for many other people,” said Lizz Matos, the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts. “And so this report was a response to that problem of not being able to shine a light on an issue and to show, through personal accounts, that this is real and it happens. And it needs a state response.”

The report comes as Massachusetts considers building a new women’s prison to replace MCI-Framingham, which is one of the oldest prisons in the nation. Advocates argued against the plan, saying investments in community resources would be more helpful. In response, state lawmakers voted this year to place a five-year moratorium on new correctional facilities. That legislation is now being finalized, but activists are pushing for strong language to prevent planning for any type of new correctional facility.

“We have to be doing something different so we can use this five years to focus on releasing women, bringing them back to the community, implementing alternatives and investing in community-led solutions that are going to stop the flow of women and girls into jails and prisons,” said Mallory Hanora, executive director of the group Families for Justice as Healing.

The report, which will be distributed to lawmakers and public safety officials this week, makes five recommendations, including increasing independent oversight of how jails and prisons handle sexual misconduct complaints. Other recommendations are to increase efforts to reduce incarceration, and improve reentry programs for people who have been incarcerated.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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