The lawsuit claims that the women were raped, groped, threatened and sexually humiliated. The women, represented by N.C. Prisoner Legal Services, demand that state prison officials pay them for their distress and “end a pattern of sexual misconduct in all women’s prisons operated by [the state Department of Correction].” The women, who agreed to be named in the lawsuit, are asking to speak on behalf of the state’s roughly 2,900 female prisoners in their fight against officials.
The claim comes on the heels of at least seven separate sexual assaults on female inmates for which the state has offered payouts to avoid legal action. Those awards were also won at the behest of Prisoner Legal Services, a nonprofit group that addresses legal concerns of inmates.
The lawsuit targets top administrators at the state Department of Correction and seven former and current staff members accused of assaulting and harassing the prisoners or protecting employees who did.
Correction Department officials declined to comment Thursday, saying they had just received the suit and had not had time to review it.
State law forbids prison staff from engaging in sexual intercourse with inmates, regardless of consent. The four women suing say they were targeted against their will.
Sandra Etters said she was repeatedly handcuffed, then raped by a male guard who stalked her in the laundry facility during her overnight shift at Women’s Prison while the correctional officer assigned to supervise her was sleeping.
Ronda Singletary said that a male correctional officer who is not fully named in the suit exposed himself to her in the canteen. When she reported the incident, other guards told her they would need to witness it and encouraged her to lure the officer into another interaction. They only intervened when the officer put his penis in her hand.
Deven Deal said that a male nurse, who is not fully named, pushed her into a janitor’s closet, fondled her and ordered her to expose herself. While she was at Southern Correctional, another women’s prison, Deal said she was forced to change clothes in front of another male employee.
Louretha King, a prisoner at Women’s Prison, said that a female correctional officer verbally propositioned and stalked her. After she reported it to supervisors, King said the officer pointed a rifle at her.
Each of the women had exhausted the prisons’ grievance procedure, which allows inmates to file complaints about treatment. In two of the instances, prison officials said the complaints couldn’t be substantiated. In another, they said the matter was closed after an inmate declined to be transferred into segregated isolation at another prison for her safety. In one claim, they said the matter was closed when the targeted employee resigned.
Rape in prison became a national focus in 2003, when Congress passed a sweeping law that obligated prison officials to adopt policies that blocked sexual violence. Congress also required that independent consultants study the prevalence of sexual assaults in state and federal prisons.
A sample of randomly selected inmates showed that North Carolina prisons fared better than most states for occurrences of sexual assaults. Of the five prisons selected for review in North Carolina, none reported more than 4.7 percent of inmates saying they were victimized in nonconsensual acts.
None of the prisons selected for study in North Carolina, though, housed women. Experts say female inmates are far more susceptible to abuse than men.
James Aiken, a correctional expert on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, a board formed to enforce the federal law, said in an affidavit filed with the lawsuit that North Carolina prisons are failing women, indicated by their previous settlements with inmates who were sexually violated.
Aiken said the frequent payouts reveal a “defective correctional culture and indicate that staff are not performing the basic security delivery expected in an inmate population.”