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28 women say they were raped, abused by incarcerated men who bought an officer’s keys at the Clark Co. Jail

Prison cell bars
Prison cell bars

More than two dozen women are now suing a Southern Indiana sheriff and local corrections officers for failing to protect them from sexual assault and abuse during a “night of terror” at the Clark County Jail last October.

Eight unnamed women filed a new federal civil lawsuit on Monday, joining 20 others who made similar claims in a separate civil suit last month.

“In almost all the cases there, a lot of them are still experiencing nightmares, and they're fearful of authority,” said attorney Steve Wagner, who’s representing the women in the case filed this week. “And it's really been a very traumatic experience for these women.”

The plaintiffs claim men — who were also incarcerated at the jail — used keys they bought from a former corrections officer to access areas that housed women.

According to the lawsuit, the men entered the women’s pod with clothing obscuring their faces and threatened to hurt the women if they called for help. The women were “terrified and fearful for their lives” and “tried to hide under blankets, in the bathroom, or in dark corners of the pods.”

They allege that over the course of several hours, the men raped at least two women and “assaulted, harassed, threatened and intimidated” others.

After the women reported the incident to an attorney, Wagner said jail officials “punished” the women by placing them on lockdown, left on the lights in their jail pods for 72 continuous hours, and confiscated personal items such as pillows, blankets and hygiene products.

“It has been really a horrific experience for these women,” Wagner said. “Not only those few hours of terror, but also in the days following when they were subjected to retaliation by the jail. …. And then, fear of it happening again. There were a few days when the keys weren't located.”

David Lowe, the officer accused of selling the keys for $1,000, was arrested two days after the incident. He’s waiting to be assigned a public defender and has pleaded not guilty to two felony charges and a misdemeanor.

The federal civil lawsuits name him as a defendant, along with Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel and unknown jail officers. They accuse Lowe and other officers present that night of negligence and inflicting emotional distress for not intervening. Noel is listed in his official capacity for failing to adequately maintain safety at the jail and train and supervise the officers.

The women argue that jail officials’ failure to protect them violated civil rights outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

Noel’s attorney, Larry Wilder, said the sheriff’s office doesn’t dispute that Lowe sold the key to incarcerated men.

“However, we dispute the vast majority, if not all of the statements that have been set out in these two civil cases, because the evidence does not support these claims,” Wilder said.

When asked if the sheriff’s office is denying that the assaults occurred, Wilder wouldn’t specify which details of the plaintiffs’ accounts they were challenging.

“What I will say is that there is no dispute that David Lowe gave access to the jail to inmates, and those inmates did, in fact, leave their pods and go to other pods,” Wilder said. “However, the allegations relative to the ‘night of terror’ that one of the cases lays out, and the allegations that have been made by other plaintiffs’ counsel… we will stand on the evidence that will be provided, and these things did not happen the way they've been described.”

Wilder said the sheriff’s office conducted an internal investigation and gathered information from other women in the jail that is “in direct opposition” to claims made in the lawsuit. He said the investigation “seems to indicate that there was a systematic plan by individuals who were incarcerated that evening to develop the narrative that makes up the crux of the claims.”

Wagner, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the most recent lawsuit, called Wilder’s claims “absurd.”

He said there should be extensive footage of the incident from the jail’s surveillance system, including extra cameras that were installed during the production of the A&E show “60 Days In.” The jail and Sheriff Noel were prominently featured in the show’s first two seasons from 2016 to 2017.

“We believe the evidence, including video evidence, will show male inmates entering the female dorms with coverings on their faces to hide their identities,” Wagner said. “What does the sheriff think those men are going to do when they enter the women's area with their identities, their faces covered?”

The two federal civil suits will likely merge during the discovery process, Wagner said. He and attorneys in the other case have requested jury trials. He expects more information to come out as the case progresses in the coming months.

Wagner said he hopes the process will unveil the identities of the men involved in the alleged assaults and other corrections officers who were working at the jail that night.

“Finding out what happened very well may result in additional criminal charges, that would be our hope,” he said. “So if there are officers that acquiesced in the assaults, if they knew the assaults were going on and intentionally looked the other way, then yes, they should face criminal charges.”

Lowe’s criminal trial is scheduled to start in the fall.

John Boyle is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. John's coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County, Community Foundation of Southern Indiana and Samtec, Inc.

John, News Editor for LPM, is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Email John at jboyle@lpm.org.

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