The Sexist

Safety Dance: When A Sexual Assault Allegation Makes Hard Time Harder

Central Detention Facility

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

  • stranger.

    Yes because we can really trust the honesty and judgment of this women to tell the truth?

  • http://www.twitter.com/amaditalks Amadi

    This is the pernicious position female inmates are placed in. Because they've (allegedly) committed crimes, they're immediately deemed liars. And of course, no man with incredible authority over a woman has ever taken advantage of that authority to demand or force sexual contact, ever.

  • stranger.

    She stabbed a human in the neck with a knife - there is no allegedly to it..allegations from a person with such a conviction looming should immediately be placed under suspicion.

    "And of course, no man with incredible authority over a woman has ever taken advantage of that authority to demand or force sexual contact, ever."

    This is completely irrelevant and has nothing to do with it(Y)Females with incredible authority over males that take advantage of there authority and demand or force sexual contact exist yet not every single allegation of that happening is true!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Lynet

    Stranger, the point is not that we know these allegations to be true. What we do know is that sometimes (indeed, far too often) prisoners do get sexually assaulted by prison staff -- and what this post is suggesting is that if, in fact, you are sexually assaulted, then you shouldn't get punished for reporting it. Not even if you have been accused of, or convicted of, some other crime. There is no crime for which sexual assault is a constitutionally acceptable punishment.

  • stranger.

    "There is no crime for which sexual assault is a constitutionally acceptable punishment."

    Forget the constitution - there is no time its acceptable for anything on any level.It does take place in prisons how ever the kind of people that make up a % of the prison population self evidently are not to be trusted..if accusations are made and can not proven after an investigation i fully understand why the prison would place the accuser in isolation,it makes it a lot harder for them to go on causing problems.

  • skizzle

    stranger's a Dbag.

  • TJ

    @stranger, that's the thing. You can't just "forget the constitution," at least not in the United States. Apparently these ladies are in prison because they broke the law, got caught, went to trial and were found guilty. They went through the process designated by law. The law does not stop at the prison gates, though. They have a right to tell authorities about being a victim of sexual assault, even if it's by the very folks who are supposed to ENFORCE THE LAW. You can't just dismiss their accusations because they commited a crime themselves.

    And if it's found that their accusations are false (after a COMPLETE investigation), THEN you can start disciplinary actions against the accuser. But not before. This is why you can't just forget the constitution. It was written for everyone, and that includes folks convicted of crimes.

  • squirrely girl

    A murderer is not by their very nature also a liar.

    This is a logical fallacy known as argumentum ad hominem.

    Just because a person is or did one thing doesn't mean they do or are these other things. Hell, she ADMITTED to stabbing him in the neck... if anything this would be evidence that she's NOT a liar.

    Alas, for simple and bigoted minds it's certainly easier to just ASS-ume that all people who commit crimes are just all around bad people. This is similar to arguments where sexually active women are blamed for their rapes... "well, she sleeps with other guys so she MUST have consented to sleep with that guy too..." or, "she's fucked other guys so she should have to fuck me too."

  • se resident

    Please keep these stories coming. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and most of us don't have a clue what goes on in our names behind prison walls.

  • Freedom

    Ah, so, we can trust convicted drug dealers, and money launderers and conspirators to point the finger at others and the accusations carry enough weight to have innocent peoples houses broke into , and have them arrested, dogs shot, etc., but if the same people accuse a jail guard for sexual assault, well, they have no credibility.

    Either criminals have credibility or they don't, you can't take their word for it against a typical citizen but then call them liars when they accuse those that are part of the system.

    It is a ridiculous stance that somehow strapping on a funny uniform and a tin badge all the sudden makes you beyond reproach.

  • stranger.

    "You can’t just “forget the constitution,” at least not in the United States"

    The constitution is a very important thing but i was saying screw the constitution in relation to "There is no crime for which sexual assault is a constitutionally acceptable punishment". There is no thing on earth that makes assault acceptable period. That does not need to be backed up with the constitution (Y).

    "They have a right to tell authorities about being a victim of sexual assault, even if it’s by the very folks who are supposed to ENFORCE THE LAW. You can’t just dismiss their accusations because they commited a crime themselves"

    I agree they do have the right how ever i have faith in the authorities and do not think they will dismiss accusations at the drop of a hat-if thats your belief i can understand your frustration.They are the ones spending time with this women its there judgment to make.

    "Hell, she ADMITTED to stabbing him in the neck… if anything this would be evidence that she’s NOT a liar."

    She was found covered in his blood there was zero escape - we do not know what she would have done if she had the option of getting away with it.

    "Alas, for simple and bigoted minds it’s certainly easier to just ASS-ume that all people who commit crimes are just all around bad people. This is similar to arguments where sexually active women are blamed for their rapes…"

    Do you assume all rapists are bad people? In my view people who commit crimes are either bad people or people who have made bad choices - there are situations in this world that would turn any one into what would be termed as a "criminal".

    "Ah, so, we can trust convicted drug dealers, and money launderers and conspirators to point the finger at others and the accusations carry enough weight to have innocent peoples houses broke into , and have them arrested, dogs shot, etc., but if the same people accuse a jail guard for sexual assault, well, they have no credibility."

    No,people in prison never lie and point the fingers at others in the hope of personal gain,they never lie about assault and treatment either!

    I wonder what she would have done if she had won her $20 million lawsuit, a holiday or two?

    The authoritys will not be taken for a fool and cleaned out in the same way a husband can be;)

    Thanks your your time.

  • squirrely girl

    "She was found covered in his blood there was zero escape – we do not know what she would have done if she had the option of getting away with it."

    She still could have lied and said she found him that way and tried to revive him. She could have screamed self-defense. She could have done a lot of things but she admitted it.

    "Do you assume all rapists are bad people?"

    I assume all rapists are self-involved assholes with very little to no regard for the bodily autonomy of others... I don't necessarily assume they're also liars.

    "I wonder what she would have done if she had won her $20 million lawsuit, a holiday or two?"

    So at the heart of your concern is money? That a woman who is sexually assaulted by the authority figures tasked to protect her would somehow get money for that assault? What other renumeration and consequences would you suggest/approve?

    I believe that until consequences, that outweigh any potential benefits, are levied against an offending party, they will continue to engage in said behavior. These are basic principles of behavioral learning as well as economics. Until the penal system has REAL consequences for ignoring the assaultive behaviors of it's employees toward it's charges, the policies facilitating the actions of these sociopaths will remain in place... resulting in further assaults.

  • stranger.

    "She still could have lied and said she found him that way and tried to revive him. She could have screamed self-defense. She could have done a lot of things but she admitted it"

    Yes she could have done a lot of things - leaving what we do not know aside such as witnesses and the details of the case she may have out right admitted it but does not mean she would not lie in any other situation? No..people react differently in different situations. Being in jail with the loss of freedom people look for any opportunity they can utilize to get ahead.

    "So at the heart of your concern is money? That a woman who is sexually assaulted by the authority figures tasked to protect her would somehow get money for that assault"

    You have no concept..no way of even coming close to understanding how absurd 20 million compensation is for this case, the courts who deal with this thing a lot do though,hence the case was laughed out of court.

    "I believe that until consequences, that outweigh any potential benefits, are levied against an offending party, they will continue to engage in said behavior."

    If this were true there would not be any cases like this because prisons would be empty.

  • Well-known

    "Yes because we can really trust the honesty and judgment of this women to tell the truth?"

    Right, so we'll just assume they're not and retaliate for their lies by punishing them, because doing an actual investigation and actually dealing with the issue would make too much sense.

  • http://www.triggeralert.blogspot.com L. Byron

    just wanted to say thank you to Stranger for replying to this patiently & sensibly & being the voice of reason.

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