Metropolis: Wednesday, June 19, 2003
Openingthe Doors on Carswell

Multiple cases of sexual abuse at the women’s prison are emerging.


A former Carswell prison inmate who had accused one of her guards of rape found validation earlier this month from a federal civil jury, which awarded Marilyn Shirley $4 million in damages for her suffering and her medical costs. That may be just the beginning of the bad news for senior correctional officer Mike Miller and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, however. Within the next two weeks, a federal grand jury will consider a possible criminal indictment of Miller. Beyond that, a growing list of victims suggests that Carswell’s problems with the mistreatment of women prisoners may extend far beyond Miller. And Marilyn Shirley is taking her story to Washington.

On June 2, after hearing Shirley’s graphic testimony about being raped and sodomized at the Fort Worth federal prison camp for women three years ago, the jury took about 15 minutes to find Miller guilty of violating her civil rights.

“I was sentenced for my crime and I did my time, but that sentence didn’t include rape,” said a jubilant Shirley, 48, as she stood outside U.S. District Judge John McBryde’s courtroom that day with her attorneys Gina Joaquin of Hurst and Arch McColl of Dallas. “Finally, someone believed me.” She served time at Carswell from 1996 to 2000 for a drug-related crime.

The verdict and the award stunned and heartened prisoners’-rights activists, who see few victories in cases against prison officers. “It’s the largest award that I’ve ever heard of in such a case,” said Lara Stemple, a lawyer and the executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a 23-year-old national human rights organization. She said the case is a landmark, not only because of the sizable award, but because a jury believed an inmate’s word over a guard’s. The verdict, she said, sends a powerful message to jail officials at every level that they “must begin to take prison rape seriously.”

Shirley’s account of the assault was first reported by Fort Worth Weekly on Jan. 30. At that time, Miller said he couldn’t afford an attorney for the pending civil suit. When the case reached court, he represented himself, a decision that lawyers here said probably helped seal his fate as much as did Shirley’s emotional testimony about what happened to her in the early morning hours of March 12, 2000, and the fact that, for six more months in prison, she kept hidden her evidence of the attack: a pair of semen-stained sweat pants.

Miller did not cross-examine Shirley. He called no witnesses on his own behalf and asked questions of only two of the plaintiff’s witnesses. Finally, he took the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination when put on the stand by Shirley’s attorneys. He has refused to comment for the Weekly.

What he’s said to the FBI is another question. The seven-year Bureau of Prisons employee has been under investigation since Shirley reported the sexual assault in September 2000. A federal grand jury is expected to hear evidence in the criminal case by July 3. If charged and convicted, Miller could face any sentence from life in prison for aggravated sexual assault to probation for sexual abuse of a ward.

BOP spokesperson Dan Dunne declined to comment on the civil verdict, citing the criminal investigation. “Sexual contact between staff and inmates is prohibited by law,” he said, and, when found, such acts are punished accordingly. In any event, he said, because of the high professionalism of the employees, cases of sexual misconduct between staff and prisoners within the federal prison system are “isolated incidents.”

But the public has no way of knowing if Dunne is right. The BOP public affairs office refused to release any information on Carswell employees who have been accused of, fired for, or convicted of sexual misconduct, stating that such information is compiled for law enforcement purposes and is “exempt from disclosure.”

However, a search of federal criminal and civil cases plus anecdotal evidence from former prisoners — Shirley, Sandy Comeaux of Louisiana, and Gale Birch of Waco — and former Carswell workers suggest that abuse of women inmates and employees is hardly “isolated” at Carswell. The facility near Lake Worth, the only federal full-service hospital for female federal convicts, houses 1,000 to 1,500 inmates.

Since 1997, seven Carswell workers have been fired, indicted, or convicted for sexual misconduct with prisoners.

Daryl Desjardin, a Carswell supervisory chaplain, and guard Gregory Morganfield both pleaded guilty to a “sex act with a person under his ... supervision.” Desjardin was sentenced to six months in prison and fined $5,000. Morganfield was sentenced to three months in prison and fined $500. Steven Suarez, another guard, received three years probation and a $500 fine in May 1999, after pleading guilty to the same offense.

Larry Alex, a kitchen supervisor, and staff counselor Robert George Recktenwald both pleaded guilty, in 1999 and 2000, to sexual abuse of a ward. Alex received three years probation; Recktenwald got the same, plus a $3,400 fine.

Most recently, on May 29, Carlos Baez, a gynecologist at the prison hospital, was indicted on a federal charge of sexually abusing three Carswell inmates. His trial is pending.

Suarez, 37, said Tuesday he was remorseful. “It was a terrible mistake. It’s been painful and I’m very ashamed,” he said. “Ultimately it was my responsibility and all I could do was step up and be a man and take my punishment.”

Recktenwald and Desjardin have left the area and could not be found to comment. Attorney Jim Claunch, who represented both, said his clients pleaded guilty “because they were. There’s no such thing as ‘consensual sex’ in a prison, and I advised them that a jury would probably find them guilty if they fought it. ... My best advice to men is to stay away from such jobs. My clients’ careers were ruined.”

Baez’ attorney, Francisco Hernandez, said that his client’s case bears no comparison to the Miller case. “That was a violent act,” he said, “a rape. But let’s assume the [Baez] allegations are true; he has lost his job, his medical license, and probably his family. What can be gained by punishing him further?”

Alex had little to say. “I’m just trying to leave all that behind me,” he said. Morganfield did not return the Weekly’s calls.

Another gynecologist was fired a few years ago, former inmates said, after being caught having sex with one of his patients in a hospital room — by some visiting nuns who opened the wrong door. (Shirley and other former inmates said the doctor should have been fired earlier for his “demeaning and disgusting behavior” in the exam room. The doctor would stay in the room with each patient, all of the women said, watching as they undressed and put on a gown, then would examine them without a nurse in the room, all the time making vulgar sexual remarks. After a particularly disturbing incident, Shirley refused to go back.)

And an ugly sexual harassment case brought by a former BOP female employee against her male boss whom she accused of “hitting on me on a daily basis and talking filthy,” dragged on for six years before it was finally settled last year in favor of the employee, who asked that her name not be used. Sexual harassment by the boss was succeeded by the “institutional harassment of the BOP,” which did everything it could to block her case, she said. The bureau finally admitted that she suffered abuse and awarded her a monetary settlement, but records show her harasser was simply transferred. “He still works for the bureau,” she said. “The culture of the BOP is hostile to females, whether you are inside or outside the walls.”

Stemple agreed. “This is an alarmingly high number of confirmed sexual abuse cases at one prison,” she said. “It speaks to a dangerous pattern of predatory behavior at that institution, and a culture of abuse there.”

On Tuesday, Marilyn Shirley will have an opportunity to shine some light into the dark corners of that culture. She will tell her story at a rally in Washington, D.C., part of an effort organized by Stop Prisoner Rape and other human-rights groups, aimed at passage of the Prison Rape Reduction Act of 2003. Stemple said the bill is the first to tackle head-on the crisis of prison rape. The legislation, according to SPR’s web site, calls for the gathering of national statistics on rape in prison, creation of a review panel to hold annual hearings on the problem, and provision of federal grants to states to combat the abuse.

Shirley’s lawsuit verdict couldn’t have come at a better time for the legislation’s proponents.

“Marilyn has shown a tremendous amount of courage,” by coming forward, Stemple said. Most victims of prison rape keep silent because they fear retaliation or that no one will believe them, she said. Shirley “will be a powerful voice here for reform.”

The most significant part of Shirley’s story, Stemple said, was her testimony that, after Miller ordered her into his office and locked the door, he then picked up the phone and told someone on the other end to warn him if anyone approached.

“It shows that he had the cooperation of another officer,” Stemple said. “This points to a climate of abuse, not an isolated incident. ... This goes to the liability of the facility itself.”

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