Safety Dance: When A Sexual Assault Allegation Makes Hard Time Harder
Just after midnight on Sept. 8, 2008, D.C. police found Serbennia Chase hiding down the street from the Skylark Lounge strip club covered in her ex-boyfriend’s blood. Chase, who worked at the club as a dancer, admitted to stabbing the man in the neck with a knife outside the club. She was charged with assault with intent to kill and transferred to the D.C. Jail’s Correctional Treatment Facility to await trial.
Chase got a lawyer. And that gave a jail guard the opportunity, Chase claims, to subject her to an escalating series of sexual assaults. As he escorted her between legal visits, Chase claims, a jail employee named “Lt. Harris” repeatedly grabbed her buttocks and vagina, a pattern that culminated in Harris cornering Chase on a back staircase, grabbing her and saying, “When are you going to let me put this dick in you?”
Chase claims that “if she was not an inmate she would [have] slapped his face.” Instead, she reported Harris to jail brass, who she claims responded to her disclosure by restricting her movements within the jail. Chase claims she was barred from participating in the anger management and Narcotics Anonymous classes she had been taking at CTF. She claims she was first transferred to a “more restrictive CTF jail unit,” and then moved to a more restrictive facility entirely—the Rappahannock Regional Jail in Virginia’s Stafford County. There, Chase says she spent two weeks in 24-hour lockdown, getting her food through a slit in the door and only leaving her cell to shower. And even after she was downgraded to a lower security level at Rappahannock, Chase was now two hours away from family—and her defense attorney.
So Chase got another lawyer, and sued the District and the Corrections Corporation of America (which manages the CTF) in February for violating her constitutional rights. In the suit, Chase claims that CTF and jail employees increased her security level “for reasons unrelated to infractions of jail policies and procedures”—namely, to retaliate against her for snitching on an alleged sexual assailant.
In its legal response, the D.C. government and CCA argued that there’s nothing wrong with slapping more restrictive security conditions on Chase. “Such a policy is not itself unconstitutional,” as increasing restrictions against an inmate has “several legitimate penological purposes relating to security and inmate safety.” Especially, the District says, in the case of a whistleblower: “This is likely particularly so where an inmate has filed allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against a member of the prison staff.” Trust us, the city and the prison corporation were essentially saying—we’ve got to do whatever it takes to keep our inmates safe. Even if the only threat to their well-being came from prison guards. (A CCA rep said the corporation doesn’t comment on litigation, but that “CCA lacks the authority to determine which facilities D.C. inmates are assigned to.”)
The District’s legal arguments persuaded U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle to dismiss the case earlier this month. Which is, more often than not, how these sorts of cases go.
In corrections facilities across the country, “inmate safety” is a persistent rationale for punishing those who have reported assaults behind bars. “After an inmate reports an assault, they often end up having more restrictions on them, going into isolation, or being transferred to another facility with a higher security level,” says Melissa Rothstein, senior program director for prison rape watchdog organization Just Detention International.
But when the staff is responsible for the victimization, solutions like isolation don’t necessarily offer much protection, even though that’s the argument prisons rely on to get judges to approve their actions. “The rationale is that the inmate will be safer there—but they often remain at great risk for assault or retaliation by staff as well as by other inmates,” Rothstein says. “We’ve unfortunately seen some pretty serious retaliation against inmates who file sexual assault reports against staff members. While corrections officers justify this housing as needed for safety and order, it does not always result in better protection for the victim.”
Chase is not the only CTF inmate to complain of retaliation-by-security after a sexual assault report. In 2008, Jessica Rubio was in CTF on solicitation charges and attempting to “turn her life around” by participating in the facility’s “Life Without a Crutch” support group. Rubio claims that “Sgt. Powell,” the CTF staffer running the group, repeatedly paid Rubio’s pimp for the right to have sex with her in the jail’s satellite kitchen. Rubio says that Powell would remove her from her cell during designated “quiet times” and take her to the kitchen where she “felt obligated to have sex with him.” (Her pimp provided her with a receipt.)
After disclosing the alleged assaults in June 2008, Rubio claims that she was put under “lock down,” and that “certain services and programs, that she enjoyed prior to her disclosures, were denied to her”—including phone calls and hygiene packages. Later, Rubio, like Chase, was transferred to Rappahannock Regional Jail, “without a hearing on the transfer, or its impact on her.” In February, Rubio filed a similar suit against the District; attorney Wendell Robinson, who represented both women, declined to comment on the cases.
According to The Examiner, the D.C. jail put Powell and Harris on administrative leave after the allegations surfaced at CTF. But sexual assault allegations have a way of following the accuser no matter where they’re incarcerated. “If a staff member abuses an inmate, and an inmate reports it, you’ll sometimes see other staff members retaliate against that inmate because they ratted on one of their own,” Rothstein says. Even transferring an inmate to a separate facility won’t necessarily prevent retaliation. “Information tends to travel with a person,” Rothstein says.
Given the pervasive nature of retaliation against accusers, it’s not surprising that corrections officials feel justified in increasing security around inmates abused by staff. But when heightened security means loss of privileges, increased distance from family, limited access to educational programs, and sometimes 24-hour lockdown, even a well-meaning policy “can become a kind of a punishment for reporting assault,” Rothstein says. It’s unlikely, however, that the form of punishment is actually unconstitutional: Rubio’s case, which is ongoing, rests on very similar claims to Chase’s dismissed suit.
“People don’t have a right to be at a certain facility,” Rothstein says. “Jail officials have a lot of leeway in how they make that determination.” You might expect an inmate’s accommodations to be determined by what brought them to jail in the first place—like stabbing someone in the neck. In D.C., though, jail officials are free to reprimand inmates for what happens next—like being sexually abused, and talking about it. That’s a lot of leeway, indeed.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery