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On the fifth floor of the Federal Detention Center in Miami, a short and stocky inmate stood sweeping the floor. Her name was Shonda Ross, and in her 32 years, she had seen the inside of more than a few prisons like this one — Tallahassee, Raleigh, and Danbury, Connecticut, among them. She had learned to survive in prison; she knew how to make friends with people who could protect her and get her the things she needed, such as the girlfriend in Tallahassee who smuggled in drugs from the back fence. But nothing prepared her for this place.
Built in 1995, the prison featured a Depression-era Art Deco exterior that was a cheery nod to South Beach, but other than that, everything was standard: a white-washed concrete shell for a room, a metal bunk with a thin mattress, a toilet made of steel. There were television sets in the common area, a rec room with Ping-Pong tables, and a place to smoke and get a bit of fresh air. But here in her room with the metal door shut, she was blocked off from all of that. She couldn't hear the traffic humming outside on NE Fifth Street; she couldn't feel the muggy summer heat or hear the music from cars going to the beach. She was sealed off, a stark fluorescent bulb above her, alone with her thoughts.
She churned her broom, picking up dust bunnies off the gray linoleum floor. She was an attractive woman, with disarming, fawn-like brown eyes that had attracted both men and women. The name of one lover decorated her right arm; a tiny red heart adorned her left breast.
She heard the door click open. Through the reflection of the stainless-steel plate that served as her mirror, she could see the figure of a large black man entering her cell.
He sported the uniform of a federal corrections officer: crisp white button-down shirt, neatly pressed gray slacks, sharp black tie, and shiny black shoes. He stood five-foot-nine — four inches taller than her — and carried 200 pounds of taut, sinewy muscle. She recognized him right away. He'd been here before, and every time it was the same thing.
As he moved closer, she could feel his hot breath on her neck. He unbuttoned her jumpsuit, pulled it off her soft shoulders, and let the red cotton garment fall to the floor. He led her to the bottom bunk and sat her down. He didn't have to say anything. They both know why he was there. She leaned back, closed her eyes, and waited for it to end.
Over the next two months, Shondra Ross (not her real name) claims, the same guard entered her cell and raped her 12 times. But that's not all. Ross says that during her four stays at FDC Miami between 2002 and 2005, where she was transferred to testify in two drug trafficking cases, she was sexually assaulted numerous times by four different guards. Yet despite her reports to prison officials and federal prosecutors, who were using her as a witness, the complaints were discredited and ignored.
In 2007, Ross sued the U.S. government and the four correctional officers, accusing them of making her strip, touching her genitals, and, in the case of guard Damioun Cole, repeatedly raping her. Three months ago, federal Judge Cecilia Altonaga wrote that although the statute of limitations had passed to award civil damages, the evidence suggested Ross had in fact been sexually assaulted by guards at the prison and that supervisors at FDC Miami and the Bureau of Prisons had done next to nothing in response. "S.R. was sexually abused on numerous occasions by the individual defendants," Altonaga wrote. "The BOP and FDC Miami did have notice of the illegal conduct taking place, and were woefully deficient in addressing it and giving S.R. protection."
One might consider it unlikely that guards would be allowed to have their way with female inmates at a high-profile prison such as the Federal Detention Center in Miami, where infamous inmates — including ex-Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, alleged dirty bomber José Padilla, the Liberty City Six, and disgraced former Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne — have been housed. Yet officers and employees sexually assaulting inmates without fear of any consequences is a widespread problem afflicting federal prisons across the nation.
According to a 2005 U.S. Department of Justice report, an estimated 12 percent of the 2,808 complaints received by the justice department's inspector general involved inmates reporting one or more incidents of sexual victimization by prison staff over a two-year period.
"When nearly one in 20 prisoners reports being raped or sexually abused behind bars, it is clear that prison authorities are not doing enough to prevent these serious crimes," said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel for the Human Rights Watch's U.S. program. "Prison rape is not inevitable," Fellner added, "but it is all too predictable when prison authorities fail to enforce a zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse."
Ross's attorney, Matthew Sarelson, says even though his client didn't win any money, she exposed some serious problems in the federal prison and justice systems. "On one hand, the federal prison system doesn't have the proper mechanisms to report and investigate sexual assaults by corrections officers against inmates," he says.