While high-profile sexual abuse charges make headlines across the country, a quiet epidemic has been surging in America’s prisons and jails for years. According to recently released numbers from the Department of Justice, the rate of sexual abuse reports by inmates tripled in just four years. More than half of those incidents involve allegations of staff victimizing inmates. And while women make up just 7 percent of the U.S. prison population, they are victims in a third of the cases that are substantiated.
Lucia asked that we hide her identity. She says Deputy Sheriff Daniel Swanson sexually abused her while he was transporting her to hospital visits. She has filed a civil lawsuit against Swanson, San Joaquin County, and Sheriff Steve Moore. The county's District Attorney has filed a felony charge against Swanson for assault by a public officer.
Lucia needed a series of medical exams after she was injured while picking up a heavy bag in jail. During her first appointment, Lucia says Deputy Swanson complimented her. “He told me that I was pretty. I said, ‘Thanks.’ That was it and he took me back. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.” But starting with her second hospital visit, Lucia says Swanson got physical with her.
Swanson has been charged with felony assault and misdemeanor sexual battery of a female inmate while she was shackled and under his control. On Oct. 2, 2018, Swanson pled not guilty. His attorney’s office, Villapudua Law, did not return calls or emails requesting comment.
Here is video of Swanson entering his “not guilty” plea in court with his lawyer.
“There is actually a long history of sexual victimization of women in custody,” said Dr. Brenda Smith, a member of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) Commission, a task force assembled to study sexual assaults in U.S. prisons and jails and set guidelines for reducing those attacks. See PREA Report here.
Inmates who are sexually abused often have no choice but to bring the matter up to prison staff. “All inmates are at risk of victimization because of the lack of power in institutional settings, because of the code of silence and also because of the poor investigative outcomes,” Smith said.
The latest data from the Department of Justice shows reports of sexual victimization of inmates by staff have more than tripled in a five-year period, from 4,293 cases in 2011 to 14,303 in 2015. The number of substantiated reports rose 43 percent within that time, from 433 cases to 619.
Smith points out that one area the commission failed to address is “inmate transport,” and admits that this was an oversight. “While there was debate about it, we ultimately did not enact standards related to transport,” she said. However, she stresses that it’s up to each prison and jail to ensure that inmates are safe from sexual abuse and violence while being transported. “The PREA standards are the floor,” she said, “and the reality is that agencies were on notice long before the standards - that transport was an area of vulnerability to sexual victimization and abuse.”
The San Joaquin County Sheriff declined to sit down for an interview, citing the pending litigation. A staffer at the sheriff’s office did state during a phone call that changes had been made since the charges were filed against Swanson, but declined to offer details.
“I anticipate that there will be a slew of cases like this one,” said Attorney Stan Goff, who is suing San Joaquin County, the sheriff and Swanson for $2 million on behalf of Lucia.
“I think that people as a whole should hold people accountable,” he said. Goff is building a case against Swanson and, in his words, “the people who hired him and the people who failed to supervise him in a proper manner.”
Lucia says she doesn’t feel safe and doesn’t trust anyone at the jail but believes she has to speak out. “This uniform doesn’t mean that we can be treated like we are nothing,” she said. “It is always going to be our word against theirs. We have to have dignity and not stay quiet.”