Ga. probes years of abuse of female inmates at state prison

December 31, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. -- Outside, the prison resembles nothing so much as a suburban office park or a modern middle school. It sits in a wooded area far off the main road south of Milledgeville, a central Georgia town of antebellum mansions and a distinctly Southern air.

Five prisons are clustered here, not counting a youth detention facility. In such a setting, the Georgia Women's Correctional Institution is an utterly unremarkable presence.

Its appearance is at odds, however, with the image conjured by recent reports from inside -- reports of rape, of pregnancies and forced abortions, of women prisoners left stripped and bound for weeks.

The women have been coming forward for months, almost 200 in all. They tell of women treated like dogs, bound and fed from dishes shoved under their faces; of guards photographing women engaged in sex acts; of inmates being taken off the grounds to work as prostitutes.

The allegations suggest a prison out of control, a place where even the men in charge tolerated, if not condoned, rampant abuse for at least 13 years.

Since March, a steady stream of women has taken polygraph tests or given sworn statements implicating about 50 prison employees.

At least partly acknowledging the problem, state prison officials fired one warden and demoted another Dec. 7, citing poor stewardship. Fourteen prison employees were indicted in November on charges of abusing inmates.

More indictments are expected; firings now number 10; nine people have resigned; five have been transferred, and six

suspended.

"They allowed this whole culture of abuse [to develop]," said Robert Cullen, a legal services attorney representing the inmates in a class-action lawsuit. "Abuse was OK. It didn't matter. . . . Everybody became sort of inoculated to the abuse that was ongoing."

A number of states, including California, Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan and New York, have had similar controversies. But Brenda Smith, director of the Women in Prison Project of the National Women's Law Center, says she knows of no investigation as widespread as the one in Georgia.

For a long time, prison officials here did not want to believe the allegations of sexual abuse. Now, they are convinced that a good number are true.

Allen Ault, special assistant to the corrections commissioner appointed in October to address the problem, says that he has talked with some of the women and that "most of the stories that I've heard have been credible."

What is different about these allegations, beyond their number, is the duration of the abuse, Mr. Cullen says.

Some allegations go back to 1979, even before a similar prison scandal resulted in the firing of a deputy warden and the passing of legislation making it a felony for guards to engage in sex with prisoners, one of the few such laws in the nation.

But critics say that the law had little effect.

Now, though sexual relations between inmates and staff members were consensual in some cases, corrections officials say that that also no longer will be tolerated.

Officials say the problems are a manifestation of strains that affected women's prisons nationally during the 1980s, as their combined population tripled, to a record 40,556, mostly the result of a 307 percent increase in women imprisoned for drug offenses. At the same time, prison staffing and training lagged.

Mr. Ault acknowledges that the Georgia system was slow to react but says it is improving. The investigation that resulted in November's indictments has been widened to include two other women's prisons.

Mary Esposito, a veteran administrator, was brought in to serve as warden at the Georgia Women's Correctional Institution in April. She installed a new administrative team and is instituting reforms designed to regain inmates' trust.

Some reforms already have been implemented. The prison's population -- thanks to the accelerated opening of a new facility -- has decreased since April from 920 to a more manageable 720. Ms. Esposito's goal is to lower it to 660.

In addition, abused inmates have been offered psychological counseling and support groups have been formed to deal with what Ms. Esposito calls "survivor-type issues," such as domestic violence.

Staff training has been increased, and Ms. Esposito says that she hopes to institute programs on substance abuse and medical issues.

Another issue that the new warden hopes to address is the institution's high recidivism rate.

"That's a concern," she acknowledged. "A high percentage of [inmates] are coming back. . . . We hope to develop a model institution, offering people an opportunity to leave better prepared than when they came and not make the same mistakes that got them here."

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