What happens when the prison guard who’s supposed to protect you abuses you?
A note for readers: This story includes descriptions of sexual assault.
Cynthia Long vividly remembers the first time she met Lamont Williams. She had finished a visit with her family and was walking across the yard of the Indiana Women’s Prison, where she was incarcerated. Williams had been assigned to monitor the areas outside the prison.
“He kind of did a double-take and stopped me and said, ‘What's your name?’ And I told him,” Long recalled. “He mocked my accent and he said, ‘Well, I'm going to call you Kentucky.’”
Long, originally from Kentucky, now lives in New Albany, Indiana, a small town on the border between the states. Long saw Williams a few times after that first meeting in the prison yard. She remembers he was friendly, even flirty. He was well-liked by the prison staff, she said.
Williams declined to comment for this story and asked Side Effects Public Media reporters to not contact him again. Prison officials also declined an interview. So the following account is based on Long’s recollection and court records.
Long’s prison job was to clean one of the units. One day while working in October 2014, she went into a supply closet to fix a mop. Williams followed her into the closet and closed the door.
“And he yanked my pants down and forced himself into me,” Long said. “I'm turning this way and I'm trying to fight him off and get around. And I’m yelling, but down that hallway there's no one. Finally, what makes him stop is there's a woman in a wheelchair yelling for somebody. And that's when he gets done and leaves.”
Long said Williams sexually abused her again a few months later. He came to the unit where she lived and acted like he was going to perform a search. Instead, Long said he forced her to perform oral sex.
After each incident, Long chose not to immediately report Williams.
“You’ve got to figure in my mentality, in my frame of mind, I'm thinking, I’ve got to deal with these [correctional officers],” Long said. “I mean, this is my life. So I’m thinking I’m just going to chalk it up and not say anything.”
Women who report prison sexual misconduct can face consequences
Sexual misconduct in prison is defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as “any consensual or nonconsensual behavior or act of a sexual nature directed toward an inmate by staff, including romantic relationships.” The latest national data shows nearly 6,000 allegations of staff sexual misconduct in 2018 in federal and state prisons across the U.S. — up from 2,376 in 2012. The agency attributes the rise, at least in part, to new national reporting standards implemented in 2012.
In Indiana prisons, there were 57 reports of staff sexual misconduct in 2020 and 91 in 2019, according to data from the department of correction. Of the incidents from those two years, 37 were substantiated by investigators, but sometimes there is not enough evidence for investigators to determine whether an alleged incident occurred.
Outside of prisons, sexual violence is underreported, the Department of Justice noted in 2020. Those crimes can be difficult to prove, and being in prison creates additional challenges for women trying to pinpoint when abuse occurred, said Julie Abbate, national advocacy director for Just Detention International, a nonprofit focused on ending sexual abuse in detention settings.
“You don't have a watch, you don't have a clock, you don't have a calendar, you might not have windows, you have no idea what day or time it is,” Abbate said.
Long’s decision not to tell anyone about the abuse isn’t surprising, she said. Women in prison may choose not to report an assault because they feel ashamed or worry about repercussions. Guards control so much of their lives, including who can visit them.
"If you get a write up, that might affect your out date. If you get sent to [solitary confinement], you may not be able to have visitation letters or phone calls,” Abbate said. “Basically, they can restrict your access to your children, and that is the most powerful form of coercion, I think, that there is for a mother who's locked up in prison."
Even before the incidents with Williams, Long had already learned a hard lesson about what happens in prison after reporting abuse. Before she came to Indiana, she had been convicted of burglary and theft in Kentucky. Her brother had broken into dozens of homes in Indiana and Kentucky and she was the driver during those incidents. Long went to prison in Kentucky, and while there, she said she and two other women were sexually abused by a guard.
Long reported the abuse, and she said she was singled out and threatened by prison staff.
“The assistant warden wanted to put me in protective custody because he was afraid of what the staff were going to do to me,” Long said. “It was horrible.”
Several months after the second assault in the Indiana Women’s Prison, Long reported Williams to a prison investigator. She had saved his DNA, spitting his semen into a tissue after she said he forced her to perform oral sex.
Investigators heard two stories: Long said she was sexually assaulted by Williams, twice. Williams said the encounters were consensual. But federal law, and laws in most states, including Indiana, make sex between incarcerated people and corrections staff illegal, regardless of consent. Many legal experts like Abbate say consent can’t exist between a guard and a person they protect.
“There's just an inability for a person who's locked up to consent to sexual activity to the person who is locking her up just because of the differences in power dynamics,” she said.
Abbate said another reason women in prison might not report an assault is to avoid the trauma of a court case.
“Oftentimes the victim is the one that's put on trial,” she said. “The victim is the one whose actions are scrutinized.”
In situations involving people who are incarcerated and prison staff, there’s also an inherent imbalance of trust and respectability in the eyes of the court.
“The correctional officer probably has no [criminal] record … whereas the woman who's locked up clearly has a record,” Abbate said. “And God forbid that record involve some sort of ... crime of dishonesty where you can attack their credibility.”
A perpetrator’s plea deal can feel like a denial of justice
Williams was arrested and charged with sexual misconduct and official misconduct — a catchall for people who abuse their positions in government. He was also fired from his job with the Indiana Department of Correction. But he was not charged with rape or sexual battery, which would indicate force, or a threat of force, was involved.
Despite Cynthia’s account and the DNA evidence, the charges seem to reflect Williams’ version of the story: two incidents of consensual oral sex. Williams and the prosecution eventually struck a deal. He pleaded guilty to one count of sexual misconduct, which is normally a felony that could result in up to six years in prison, but the deal specified the most Williams would get would be two years. The other charges were dropped.
After he pleaded guilty, he was sentenced to two years of house arrest and some community service. He did not serve time in prison. The Marion County prosecutor’s office declined an interview for this story. A spokesman said in an email that sexual misconduct was the appropriate charge, given the allegations and evidence.
But Long said the outcome didn’t reflect what happened to her.
“That's another thing that upsets me,” she said. “We're the victims; [yet] we don't have a say in the plea. They don't come and ask us, ‘Is this acceptable to you?’ I mean, I'm still a human being, whether I'm behind a razor wire or not.”
Long’s abuse was not an isolated incident. Side Effects Public Media identified three cases since 2015 in which staff at the Indiana Women’s Prison were charged with sexual misconduct. One case is still awaiting trial, and the other two guards got deals. Neither of them went to prison.
The guard who Long said assaulted her in Kentucky was charged, but also did not serve prison time.
The way prisons and courts respond to abuse at the hands of prison staff minimizes the experiences of women like Long, Abbate said.
“Some people say it's worse than if they hadn't gotten charged at all, to be charged with something so silly as sexual misconduct,” she said. “To not have the court system recognize that can be really devastating and can have a deterrent effect on anybody reporting sexual abuse in the future."
The toll of sexual assault for women like Long women can last. Sexual violence can have chronic health consequences, and survivors can be more likely to smoke or abuse alcohol and drugs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since her release from the Indiana Women’s Prison in 2017, Long said she has needed counseling, and she still takes medication for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"My weight went up, which has caused me heart problems,” she said. “And my breathing’s worse. I'm on three inhalers now … Am I really coping with it? Probably not.”
Preventing prison sexual assault starts with asking why
In an effort to protect incarcerated people from sexual abuse, states have worked to implement standards set in the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, which Congress passed in 2003.
Every year, states have to be certified as in compliance with PREA standards, which include collecting data on incidents of sexual abuse and creating systems for incarcerated people to report sexual abuse without risk of retaliation. States that don’t comply risk losing funding from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The PREA standards, however, do not allow incarcerated people to sue prison systems or staff for noncompliance. Courts have repeatedly ruled that PREA did not create new rights for incarcerated people. Incarcerated people can, however, use a state’s noncompliance to bolster claims that their constitutional rights were violated.
Abbate was part of the DOJ working group that developed the PREA standards. She said at a minimum, prisons need to look at every incident of reported sexual abuse to better understand how abuse happens and what could have been done to prevent it.
“Keep asking ‘why, why, why?’ Every solution is different for every facility for those allegations,” Abbate said. “It's unique for everyone. It's not a one-size-fits-all."
The Indiana Department of Correction declined to comment on this story. Spokeswoman Annie Goeller said in an email that the IDOC “cannot comment on investigations or personnel matters.”
Goeller did not answer questions about what the IDOC is doing to prevent sexual abuse in prisons, including whether there are cameras in prison closets, where women like Long have reported assaults.
You can listen to a longer version of this story in the second season of Sick, a podcast from WFYI and Side Effects Public Media about what goes wrong in the places meant to keep us healthy. Download all five episodes wherever you get podcasts, or listen at sickpodcast.org.
This story comes from Side Effects Public Media — a public health news initiative based at WFYI. Follow Lauren and Jake on Twitter: @lauren_bavis and @jkhrpr.