Prison sex abuse must be rooted out, Justice official tells wardens

Incarcerated women walk on the grounds at FCI Dublin in 2004.

Sexual abuse in the nation’s federal prisons must be rooted out, the Justice Department’s second-highest-ranking leader told prison wardens gathered for their first nationwide training since revelations that a toxic, permissive culture at a California prison allowed abuse to run rampant.

The Associated Press gained exclusive access to the training Tuesday for wardens of the country’s 122 federal prisons, the first since AP investigations uncovered deep, previously unreported flaws within the federal Bureau of Prisons, the Justice Department’s largest law enforcement agency.

Teams of experts and officials will soon be fanning out to women’s prisons around the country to follow up on reforms the agency adopted last fall, and they’ll speak to both staff and incarcerated people, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a speech at the training facility outside Denver.

At the training, wardens sat at round conference tables dotted with quotes about wellness and leadership from Malcolm X and Mahatma Gandhi. It was the first gathering of its kind in five years.

"This is urgent, urgent work," Monaco told AP in an interview. "It’s incumbent upon us as leaders to call that out and make those changes and really be vigilant about it."

Any sexual activity between a prison worker and an inmate is illegal. Correctional employees have substantial power over inmates, and there is no scenario in which an inmate can give consent.

At California’s Dublin prison, a culture of predatory employees was fueled by cover-ups that largely kept their misconduct out of the public eye for years, AP’s reporting found. The prison’s former warden was convicted of molesting inmates and forcing them to pose naked in their cells. He was one of several employees charged with sexual abuse of inmates. Its chaplain was also convicted.

Prosecutions in other similar cases are expected to continue. Monaco told U.S. attorneys last week to prioritize cases of sexual abuse allegations against correctional staffers.

"But most importantly, we’ve got to do all of the work to prevent that from happening in the first place," she said. Most wardens are dedicated leaders who can preside over a culture that "does not tolerate even one instance of sexual abuse," she said in the speech to wardens, which hit notes of both warning and encouragement.

Fundamental change in the Bureau of Prisons culture is part of a new mission statement announced Tuesday by the bureau’s new director, Colette Peters. She was hired last year after her predecessor resigned amid mounting pressure from Congress. That came after the AP investigations exposed widespread corruption and misconduct.

Cultural change points at the direction Peters says she wants to take the agency, including ramping up rehabilitation for incarcerated people to become "good neighbors" outside of prison. 

Making prisons more "normal and humane" will also create better work environments for American correctional workers, who she says often suffer from PTSD and have shorter lifespans, unlike their counterparts in countries like Norway.

"That," Peters said, "equates to a safer environment for both our employees and those in our care custody."


Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak in New York contributed to this story.