Lawsuit Helps Spur Change in Female Inmate Assault Policies
Southern Correctional Institution sits on the outskirts of Troy, a rural town in Montgomery County, North Carolina. It's surrounded by a 10-foot-tall, razor-sharp barbed wire fence. Inside, it houses men and women, with a total population of 772.
WFDD's Keri Brown went there to visit 36-year-old Sandra Etters. She's from the small town of St. Pauls in Robeson County.
In 2002, Etters began her prison sentence at North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, also known as NCCIW, in Raleigh. She said she pled guilty to charges of second degree murder and conspiracy to commit second degree murder in the shooting death of her husband.
"It was actually a relief. It was the first time in my life that I could sleep at night. It was the first time in my life that I felt safe," said Etters.
Etters is about 5'6". Her long brown hair hangs loosely over her shoulders. And her wide brown eyes are sincere as she explains she has never been in prison before. As she enters the conference room, she appears nervous–- she settles into a chair, anxiously twisting her fingers. A prison administrator is also present.
Growing up, Etters says she was sexually, physically, and mentally abused by her mother's boyfriend. As an adult, she married a man who she claims also abused her.
This kind of violence followed her to prison. While an inmate at NCCIW, Etters says from August through October 2007, she was repeatedly raped by a correctional officer while working the late night laundry shift.
"The last incident on October 12th, he handcuffed me." Etters further explains, "He was trying to force himself in me and thankfully somebody rang the bell, so that time it wasn't fulfilled but it had been several times before."
Etters identifies her assailant as Correctional Officer Sims.
Obstacles in Reporting Prison Abuse
"Who is going to believe a prison officer over me? For real. I saw things happening around me and that's how it was," said Etters.
Initially, she didn't report the sexual assault for fear of retaliation from prison staff and other inmates.
But her roommate took notice of the handcuff marks on Etters wrists and her unexplained bruises and reported the alleged abuse to prison officials. Etters says they didn't take her seriously. So she filed grievances with prison officials but didn't hear much back. Then in 2008, she said things got much worse.
"I lost my job, I couldn't see anybody in Mental Health. It took until February to see a psychiatrist, prison staff would beat on my door at night, and I was strip searched a lot," said Etters.
Lawsuit Filed to Spur Change
Several months later, she contacted NC Prisoner Legal Services for help. In November 2009, attorneys with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services filed a lawsuit on behalf of four female inmates, including Etters, alleging sexual violence and harassment by prison employees. Etters says enough was enough.
"We have too many young women coming into prison and what is going to happen to them? I have children as old as some of these young women and that was my final thing was what if my young daughter comes in and it happens to her and I didn't do anything about it? I couldn't deal with that," said Etters.
The suit also accused several state prison administrators of not being responsive to ensure inmate safety. The most prominent defendant was Secretary Boyd Bennett, Director of the Division of Prisons. Last month, the Etters vs Bennett case was settled with the Division of Adult Corrections.
According to recent statistics from the NC Division of Correction, between 2008-2010, state officials investigated 835 reports of sexual misconduct and harassment by correction staff. Of those, 83 were substantiated as being true.
Although substantiated, Michele Lueking-Sunman. an attorney with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, says it is difficult to prove these cases because it often comes down to hearsay. According to Lueking-Sunman, over the years in North Carolina, many sexual abuse claims by female inmates have been snared in administrative red tape.
"The DAC (Department of Adult Correction), prior to us filing this lawsuit, didn't have a mechanism in place to see if they had investigated this officer before, so if the same person wasn't doing the investigation they may or may not know that there had been allegations against this offer," said Lueking-Sunman.
Jennie Lancaster, Chief Deputy Secretary for the Division of Adult Correction said she admits North Carolina's prison system is not perfect, but said correctional officials have been responsive to sexual abuse allegations by female inmates before new federal legislation known as the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
"We were actually one of the leaders in the country in recognizing the seriousness of undue familiarity and actually instituting a training program for all of our employees about that," said Lancaster.
In 2003, the U.S. Congress passed PREA to establish a "zero tolerance standard" for rape in prisons and juvenile facilities. It also requires states to annually report sexual violence incidents in prisons and jails to the U.S. Justice Department. States that don't comply can lose 5 percent of their federal funding.
A year-and-a-half ago, Etters was transferred to the state prison in Troy to leave what she called a hostile environment.
As part of the settlement in the Etters vs Bennet case, the state has invested $100,000 dollars in new cameras, windows and other safety features at three of the women's prisons listed in the lawsuit: Southern Correctional Institute in Troy, NCCIW in Raleigh, and Fountain Correctional Center in Rocky Mount.
Lancaster described another improvement in the women's prison system.
"We are going to establish a 1-800 phone line that will be posted in all of our institutions, so as these calls come in, they will be recorded here in the PREA office and then the institution head and the female command manager will be called immediately regarding the allegation," said Lancaster.
Also, according to Lancaster, as part of the Etters v Bennett settlement, the Division of Adult Correction will work closely with the Washington, DC,-based Moss Group. Experts at this consulting firm partner with correctional facility administrators to implement the PREA standards and meet federal compliance.
"They will be doing some very specific training, they will be doing focus groups of both inmates and employees. That's one of the ways that they work within institutions," said Lancaster.
Meanwhile, rape survivor and inmate Sandra Etters will receive $24,000 from the state.
She expects to be released from prison in 2021 and hopes to go to college and start her own non-profit organization to help other abused female inmates.
State prison officials said that Correctional Officer Sims, who was accused of raping Etters, has been terminated.
Next month, inmates and prison staff will be trained about the new 1-800 abuse phone number. In August, the Moss group will work at the three prisons named in the Etters lawsuit.
This is part two of "A Cry for Help Behind Bars". You can read and listen to part one here.