A Cry For Help Behind Bars
According to a new report issued by the U.S. Justice Department, nationwide one in every 10 state prisoners is a victim of sexual abuse. Female inmates are more than three times likely to be victimized, compared to their male counterparts.
There are a little more than 2,600 women in North Carolina's state prisons.
"We felt like the culture at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh (NCCIW) and at these other prisons was toxic," said Michele Lueking-Sunman, Civil Litigation Lead Attorney for North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services.
North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services is a Raleigh-based non-profit that assists inmates with legal concerns. Since 2004, Lueking-Sunman has been following sexual abuse cases involving female inmates and prison staff.
According to recent statistics from the NC Division of Correction, between 2008-2010, state officials investigated 835 reports of sexual misconduct and harassment by corrections staff. Of those, 83 were substantiated as being true.
But Lueking-Sunman said many female inmates don't report abuse because they fear retaliation from prison employees and other inmates.
"They believe they will be sent to segregation which means they would lose all of their privileges, visitation privileges, their ability to make phone calls and call their families, their jobs. They also lose game time that is time they earn towards their minimum sentence, so basically it keeps them in prison longer," said Lueking-Sunman.
However, one inmate at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women in Raleigh is speaking out.
Inmate #0342317, Barbara Richardson, joined the state prison population in December 2011. Now she alleges a female and a male correction officer have sexually assaulted her since earlier this year.
Last month, her brother in Lexington called me about her situation and Richardson has written two letters to me describing at least two incidents of sexual harassment, groping, and sexually suggestive comments.
During one account, Richardson says a female officer was friendly, gave her small gifts like a key chain and a stuffed animal. The officer eventually expressed an attraction to Richardson, making her uncomfortable, and became physically abusive.
This is an excerpt from one of Barbara Richardson's letters read by a Triad actress.
"One day a female officer ordered me to the laundry room. The officer came in with sweet tea and biscuits for me and closed the door. I started shaking, my heart was beating really fast and sweat was breaking out on top of my forehead. The officer grabbed both of my hands, and began kissing me and rubbing my breasts. She told me to pull down my panties. I pushed her away and grabbed the door. I was crying. The officer told me if I told anyone, I would be miserable in prison," said inmate Barbara Richardson in a letter.
NC statute prohibits prison staff from engaging in sexual intercourse with inmates regardless of consent. Staff members also are not permitted to give inmates gifts or other items.
In her letters to me at WFDD, Richardson said she was convicted of obtaining property by false pretense, credit card theft, and misdemeanor larceny.
According to Officials at the North Carolina Division of Correction, Richardson now has limited contact with the general population. She says that since April, she's lived in a single cell. State officials also said for this reason, they've denied my request to interview her in person.
Richardson is seeking help from NC Prisoner Legal Services.
"She is also going through the grievance process at the prison, so we don't have a lot of specific information about what Ms. Richardson has experienced but the things that she has described are certainly similar to what we have seen in other cases," said attorney Michele Lueking-Sunman.
If assaulted, female inmates can go through a written grievance process. If not satisfied, they can appeal the prison's response twice. The third and final response comes from outside of the prison by the Grievance Resolution Board in Raleigh. If still not satisfied, a female prisoner can file a federal civil rights lawsuit.
Lueking-Sunman said her office is in the early stages of investigating Richardson's claims of sexual abuse. Meanwhile, Richardson said she just wants to finish her sentence and get out of prison. She's scheduled to be released between October and December of this year.
In part two of "A Cry For Help Behind Bars", WFDD's Keri Brown takes a closer look at a recently settled lawsuit that is helping to change one aspect of the culture in our state's female prisons.