Content warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of sexual abuse.
The word spread like wildfire in July 2022 throughout FCI Tallahassee, a low-security federal women’s prison in Florida: Ghislaine Maxwell had arrived.
In a matter of days, media outlets in the UK and U.S. were awash in sensational accounts of how Maxwell, age 61, the procurer, groomer, and sex trafficker for deceased billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, would be spending her days in the ease of a facility in which she reportedly could teach yoga, study Russian, watch movies, and try her hand at art, baking, and cosmetology. Paparazzi have since been able to circle in on the recreation yard in order to snap photos of Maxwell. The prison has done little to push away the scavengers, perhaps because their tabloid-driven coverage distracts from the far more serious issues playing out behind the razor wire.
The popular media accounts of Maxwell’s life behind bars, supplied by the Zoukis Consulting Group, a boutique federal prison consultancy, follow a trend of reporting that has often portrayed certain federal prisons as a sort of “Club Fed”—cushy facilities where the most privileged serve out shorter sentences in relative safety and comfort. Those depictions have both amused and enraged many of the roughly 750 women who have spent years, even decades, enduring an abusive, predatory, and retaliatory environment inside FCI Tallahassee.
“Sexual abuse is rampant here,” said Rachel Padgett, 41, who arrived at FCI Tallahassee in 2017 and received her paralegal degree while she was incarcerated. “Abuse of female inmates by male staff is out of control.”
Documented reports of guards terrorizing, threatening, and stalking, as well as mentally, physically, and sexually abusing prisoners at FCI Tallahassee go back at least as far as 2002, some six years after the facility officially became a women’s prison. Since 2012, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has received more than 130 complaints alleging staff-on-prisoner abuse at FCI Tallahassee, according to documents obtained by The Appeal, one of the highest rates among federal prisons.
But the abusive and retaliatory environment at FCI Tallahassee has only spiraled further out of control in recent years, according to several incarcerated women who communicated regularly with The Appeal over the course of an expansive yearlong investigation into the conditions there. The Appeal reviewed more than a dozen civil and criminal cases filed against FCI Tallahassee staffers over the past decade, which contained disturbing allegations consistent with the incarcerated women’s accounts. Sources provided nearly uniform descriptions of the climate at the prison, often sharing painful details about the experiences of their fellow prisoners.
Over the past two years, reporting by the Associated Press and a U.S. Senate subcommittee has uncovered a pattern of shocking neglect across a handful of BOP facilities. In January 2022, the AP investigations helped force the resignation of the agency’s director, Michael Carvajal. In December, the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a scathing report on sexual abuse at federal women’s prisons ahead of a bipartisan hearing on Capitol Hill. Among its findings, investigators concluded that the BOP’s “management failures” had “enabled continued sexual abuse of female prisoners” by the agency’s employees. They also reported that the BOP’s Office of Internal Affairs was sitting on a backlog of 8,000 employee misconduct cases, “including at least hundreds of sexual abuse cases.”
But the harshest criticism stemming from this recent scrutiny has almost completely overlooked a culture of impunity and widespread abuse at FCI Tallahassee and centered instead on other prisons. At FCI Dublin in California, for example, former warden Ray Garcia was recently convicted on eight counts of sexual abuse and lying to the FBI for his involvement in a so-called rape club at the prison. A prison chaplain was also convicted.
Incarcerated sources say FCI Tallahassee’s recent ability to remain out of the spotlight is not a reflection of better conditions. Instead, they attribute it to a brutally efficient system of retaliation and cover-up, which employs a dizzying variety of tactics to protect perpetrators of sexual assault and keep their victims silent.
Tiffany Arnold, 52, and Clothera Peak, 51, are both serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Neither committed violence, and neither was even accused of having drugs or weapons on her person or in her home. They have now exhausted their appeals, while a succession of prison wardens and judges have denied their requests for compassionate release. Arnold’s mother was recently diagnosed with terminal stage 4 cancer, and Arnold says she fears she will not see her mom before she dies.
Arnold and Peak are among the very few lifers remaining at FCI Tallahassee. Their uncommon position—feeling they have little to lose, knowing prison might be their only home for the rest of their lives—has empowered them to speak out more candidly on issues that many other incarcerated women fear to touch.
“They violate our human rights like crazy,” said Peak, who, after 28 years in prison, has been incarcerated for most of her life. She became a grandmother last year. Due to COVID restrictions, the prison was routinely on modified lockdown—“red” status—for nearly three years, which made it impossible to meet her grandchild until visitation opened this year.
Over the past two decades, officials at the prison have largely ignored or effectively silenced the steady stream of horrific complaints by women in their custody, according to sources and lawsuits filed by women at the prison. This suppression has persisted at FCI Tallahassee long after it first grabbed headlines in 2006 as the site of one of the nation’s most notorious prison sexual assault scandals—a chapter that culminated in a deadly shootout between a disgraced guard and federal agents in the facility’s courtyard. It continues today, even amid a period of intense public scrutiny around issues of abuse in federal prisons.
Under this regime, two prison staffers at FCI Tallahassee have been convicted of raping female prisoners in recent years. Others have faced serious allegations in civil suits that have not previously been reported on. BOP has settled many of these lawsuits out of court, allowing officials to avoid admitting culpability. The Appeal’s investigation found that one medical official has kept his job at the prison even as numerous women have accused him of sexual assault in multiple lawsuits spanning several years. He now works at the male detention center at FCI Tallahassee, a BOP spokesperson confirmed.
Incarcerated women say outside communications, including calls to rape crisis hotlines, are closely monitored. Prisoners have faced abuse and retaliation simply for mentioning abuse by guards to a family member by phone, according to Padgett. She said this can take a variety of forms, including threats of violence against them and their family members, further sexual abuse, or being sent to solitary confinement—widely feared in prisons as one of the worst forms of punishment.
Despite the pervasiveness of these violations, FCI Tallahassee has routinely received high marks in independent audits under guidelines of the 2003 federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was supposed to provide protections for prisoners reporting abuse.
In interviews with The Appeal, incarcerated women also reported inhumane conditions extending far beyond sexual violence, all of which have contributed to a broader sense of despair at the prison. Spoiled food and meager portions were an everyday reality for several years, they said, even after one woman nearly died after eating food contaminated with E. coli. Safe drinking water has been highly unreliable and sometimes nonexistent. They also reported being forced to endure freezing cold showers during winter months, nicknamed the “polar plunge.”
As the situation has gotten worse, prisoners at FCI Tallahassee—known colloquially as Tally—have become increasingly desperate to draw attention to their suffering. But help hasn’t come, despite their best efforts.
“No one really seems to care,” said Padgett. “You start to feel like our issues must not be bad enough.”
When reached by The Appeal, a spokesperson for FCI Tallahassee declined a request for an interview. A BOP spokesperson provided a written statement.
“The BOP is committed to ensuring the safety and security of all inmates in our population, our staff, and the public,” said Benjamin O’Cone of the BOP Office of Public Affairs. “Allegations of staff misconduct are referred for investigation, as warranted.”
A ‘Breeding Ground’ for Sexual Abuse
On June 21, 2006, just before 8 a.m., federal agents walked into FCI Tallahassee with plans to arrest six prison guards. Five of the guards had been indicted on charges that they had raped incarcerated women. The sixth was accused of discouraging prisoners from cooperating with the investigation. The agents didn’t know that the leader of this group, Ralph Hill, had sneaked his personal firearm into work that day. When they encountered Hill in the facility’s lobby, he opened fire. Special Agent William Sentner with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General was killed in the ensuing shootout, and a BOP lieutenant was injured. Hill was fatally shot in the courtyard. The five other guards were arrested.
In the aftermath, officials revealed that the six guards had been investigated for providing prisoners with drugs and other contraband in exchange for sex while extorting money from the families of their victims. Authorities began referring to this as a “sex for contraband” scheme, thereby asserting a level of consent that does not exist in federal law, which prohibits any sexual contact between prison staff and incarcerated people.
Tiffany Arnold came to FCI Tallahassee in March 2004 and had been there for only two weeks when she was approached in the middle of the night by a guard who asked her to accompany him to “talk”—a euphemism for trading in sexual favors. Arnold declined, but other women did not, or perhaps felt they could not.
That guard, E. Lavon Spence, was among the group of men eventually indicted in the ring. Under the original charges, each faced up to 20 years in prison. But in the end, all of the guards were convicted for less severe charges, including bribery and mail fraud. All five received one-year sentences. Spence got a year of home detention with no prison time due to a medical condition, an accommodation rarely afforded to civilians. In 2010, a federal jury ordered Spence to pay $2.16 million in a civil suit filed by Myra C. Solliday, another incarcerated woman he’d raped. But when Spence later filed for bankruptcy, a judge ruled that he did not have to pay the damages awarded to Solliday.
A woman formerly incarcerated at FCI Tallahassee told Prison Legal News in 2006 that the sort of sexual misconduct outlined in these cases was far more widespread than investigators had shown and that the list of perpetrators “should probably be three times longer.”
Now, more than 15 years later, women held at FCI Tallahassee say staffers at the prison are still using similar tactics to manipulate and abuse prisoners. In many cases, guards use “coercion and real or perceived special treatment,” including promises of real relationships, fast food, or drugs—including opioids—to groom women for sexual abuse, Padgett explained. She called the prison a “breeding ground for these types of situations.”
According to data from a recently released report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), women are more than three times as likely as men to be sexually victimized by prison staff. Research over the past few decades has shown that an incredibly high percentage of incarcerated women and girls have experienced past physical or sexual abuse—a factor that can make them more vulnerable to further abuse behind bars.
Many women in prison suffer from “low self-esteem” and haven’t had positive, healthy relationships, Arnold explained.
“It’s changed a lot over the years—the women that come in now are so much younger than when I was first incarcerated,” she said. “You can see that they have never had anyone care for them.”
Padgett said she had witnessed predatory behavior by staff members in prison before, when she was incarcerated in an outpatient mental health unit at FMC Carswell, a federal women’s prison in Texas.
“My bunkie, who had also just arrived … was sexually assaulted by our case manager,” Padgett said.
Although Padgett was not yet a paralegal, she was always trying to help other women stuck in situations from which they saw no way out. “I helped my bunkie get transferred to another institution because some of the other women were shaming her and blaming her for having their case manager fired,” she said.
But it was not until Padgett arrived at Tallahassee that she “realized just how big of a problem” sexual abuse really is, she said.
Once women are trapped in an abusive situation with a guard, it becomes almost impossible to escape. Those who attempt to discuss sexual violence in phone calls or emails to loved ones on the outside have faced retaliation and threats from their abusers, according to Padgett.
“The mental and emotional impact of rape is made worse because male staff members monitor our calls and pass on the information to other COs,” she said.
Concerns about surveillance at FCI Tallahassee have potentially made women scared to call the toll-free rape crisis hotlines, which give prisoners a way to receive support and information about reporting abuse, according to Starlet Kizer, who has been incarcerated at the prison since 2012.
“There are flyers hanging in several areas with information about how to report sexual violence,” Kizer said. “Women know how to report … but the real question is, do they?”
When women at Tally do come forward to formally report abuse, prison officials often respond first by placing them in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), according to federal lawsuits against the prison. The SHU—pronounced “shoe”—is one of many terms for the solitary confinement units that exist in nearly all federal and state prisons. According to BOP policy, this step is ostensibly taken to protect the accuser. But it can also serve as a form of punishment that dissuades victims from reporting abuse.
“We keep these women locked up where they are easily victimized. And once abused, the prison system compounds the trauma by putting women in solitary confinement for their ‘protection,’ or allowing their abusers to coerce them into silence,” said Ariel Goode, communications director for the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.
Officials at other BOP facilities have echoed the accounts of women at FCI Tallahassee. During Senate testimony last year, Cynthia Townsend, a clinical psychologist who previously served as clinical director and trauma treatment coordinator at FCI Dublin in California, explained that incarcerated women who complained or filed a report of sexual abuse had faced extreme retaliation, including nearly a year in solitary confinement. This sort of response appears to violate PREA standards, which are intended to limit procedures that may trigger retraumatization, including the use of solitary confinement.
Most perpetrators are simply transferred or allowed to retire once the system is no longer able to cover up the abuse.
Ariel Goode, National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls
Only in extremely rare cases have sexual predators on staff at FCI Tallahassee faced criminal liability—albeit after years of alleged misconduct.
In August 2021, Phillip Golightly, a BOP correctional officer until he was indicted and fired, was sentenced to two years in prison for the sexual abuse of one prisoner at FCI Tallahassee. Golightly abused at least five women at Tally, according to complaints filed in federal court. He initially faced two counts of sexual abuse of a ward, charges that carried a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. The victim in the criminal case also filed a separate civil suit against Golightly, which accused a second FCI Tallahassee guard, Adam Sheppard, of similar abuse. The case was settled out of court in 2022.
Then, in March 2022, Jimmy Lee Highsmith was sentenced to four years in prison for sexual abuse. His indictment referred to abuses committed from 2014 to 2018. BOP hired Highsmith as a correctional officer in 2007 and he began working at FCI Tallahassee in 2010.
Highsmith was indicted on charges involving several prisoners. But a jury ultimately convicted him on only one count of sexual abuse of a ward. There was overwhelming evidence surrounding the rape in question, including eyewitness accounts from staff and prisoners alike and video surveillance documenting an assault in a staff bathroom, which was so violent that the woman was taken to the emergency room.
A string of civil suits filed against Highsmith between that time and his eventual charging in 2021 point to a broader pattern of relentless abuse and stalking of women at FCI Tallahassee. Two separate prisoners—identified in case documents only by initials, J.C. and J.P.—say Highsmith’s rapes were so brutal that they were taken to the emergency room of a local hospital for treatment. In the case of J.P., a doctor called the prison warden directly to report the woman’s injuries, but nothing was done, according to the complaint.
Plaintiff J.C. accused Highsmith of repeated assaults, intimidation, and stalking. According to a civil suit filed in federal court, another guard disrupted one of the attacks and brought Highsmith and J.C. to the lieutenant’s office. J.C. was taken immediately to the SHU. Plaintiff J.P. was also taken to the SHU after reporting her assault, according to her complaint. While she was in the solitary confinement wing, Highsmith was granted a request to work in the isolation unit where she was being held, the suit states.
“Defendant Highsmith is a serial sexual abuser of BOP inmates. Highsmith’s practice of raping inmates in FCI Tallahassee’s custody has been documented, ignored, and/or covered up by the BOP and by officials and guards at FCI Tallahassee since at least 2014,” the lawsuit filed by J.C. states.
The civil suits involving both J.C. and J.P. were settled out of court for undisclosed sums.
At the time those suits were filed, Highsmith had already been the subject of a joint probe between the FBI and the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General in 2014, which had determined that Highsmith had “likely sexually abused inmates,” according to J.C.’s complaint. Investigators collected physical evidence and interviewed multiple alleged victims, in addition to Highsmith and other officers. The findings were given to FCI Tallahassee’s warden, and Highsmith received a 10-day suspension. In 2019, he was given a promotion and quietly transferred to FCC Yazoo City, a federal prison in Mississippi. Among other new responsibilities, he was tasked with ensuring that complaints and grievances filed by staff and prisoners were thoroughly investigated.
This sort of response is par for the course in the federal prison system, according to Goode.
“Most perpetrators are simply transferred or allowed to retire once the system is no longer able to cover up the abuse,” she said.
In 2012, Corlis Ranew, a guard at FCI Tallahassee, pleaded guilty to two counts of “sexual abuse of a ward.” He was sentenced to three years of probation and six months of house arrest. Ranew never saw the inside of a prison cell, other than those he presumably visited to target his prey.
‘Turning a Blind Eye to Abuse’
Shaquila Bumpass arrived at FCI Tallahassee in 2018 after being transferred from FPC Alderson, a federal women’s prison in West Virginia. While at Alderson, Bumpass was among a group of women who had been sexually assaulted by BOP captain Jarrod Grimes, who was convicted and sentenced in 2019 on multiple rape and sexual assault charges.
Shortly after Bumpass’s arrival at FCI Tallahassee, her nightmare would be repeated. In late September 2018, a physician’s assistant named Paul Rolston ordered Bumpass down to the medical unit and informed her that she was to be given a pelvic exam and Pap smear, according to allegations contained in a 2021 lawsuit filed against Rolston and Nakamoto Group Inc., a federal contractor that has been named in a series of lawsuits over the past decade alleging neglect in its inspections of detention facilities across the country. Bumpass said she had not requested this testing and insisted she did not need it.
Rolston proceeded to perform a standard Pap smear with a speculum. But then he “shoved two fingers into Ms. Bumpass’ rectum without warning,” states the complaint, which has not been reported on publicly before. He then “abruptly proceeded to conduct an unconsented breast exam,” which consisted of “pinching her nipples while rubbing his erect penis against her right arm.” When Rolston noticed that Bumpass was crying, “he asked her if she had psychiatric problems,” according to the suit. Rolston also asked if she had been sexually assaulted in the past—seemingly an assertion that Bumpass was overreacting to his violations because of her own mental instability. This appears to follow a well-known gaslighting tactic employed by sexual abusers, which they use to shift blame onto the victim.
Bumpass was one of four plaintiffs named in that 2021 suit against Rolston. Each woman offered eerily similar descriptions of his alleged abuse. One of the women reported that she “flashed back to sexual abuse she suffered as a child” during the attack. This sort of “triggering” response often causes traumatized individuals to regress and revert to old survival patterns, such as dissociating from their bodies or going into a primal fight, freeze, or flight mode, which may have helped them survive earlier attacks.
Research has found that perpetrators of sexual abuse often take advantage of these tendencies by seeking out victims who have suffered past abuse, in hopes that they will be easier targets, or less likely to fight back or report.
In 2022, attorneys in the women’s lawsuit against Rolston and Nakamoto reached a settlement agreement. Although Nakamoto settled for an undisclosed monetary sum, Rolston was not found culpable. But this wasn’t the first time he had faced these sorts of allegations. Rolston has been named in at least four civil suits involving allegations of sexual misconduct dating back as far as 2014.
Starlet Kizer, who is currently incarcerated at FCI Tallahassee, told The Appeal that she’d also had one encounter with Rolston, in which he insisted on giving her a Pap smear even though she was seeking treatment for an ear infection. Although Kizer did not believe the procedure was necessary, she said it didn’t feel like an assault, and that Rolston eventually gave her antibiotics for her ear.
Plaintiffs, along with supportive testimony from other prisoners and even nurses named in the lawsuits against Rolston, describe his alleged attacks as becoming more violent and brazen over time. In later cases, incarcerated women claim Rolston would not even hesitate before shoving two unlubricated fingers into their rectums, sometimes clawing or digging at the insides of their vaginas or rubbing their clitorises—an act with no possible medical purpose. The actual medical issues for which the women sought assistance were rarely or never addressed, according to the complaints.
One suit alleged that Rolston was allowed to continue working around his victim “as a security officer with a loaded gun” even after she had officially reported his abuse.
The nature of Rolston’s attacks became so widely known that women developed a specific hand code for him, which mimicked the fashion in which he would penetrate women in his exam room, according to one suit.
James V. Cook, a Tallahassee-based civil rights attorney, represented Bumpass and the other women in their 2021 suit. He also represented a prisoner named Ashley Barnett in another civil suit against Rolston in 2020 brought by five named women—and several other unnamed prisoners—whom he had allegedly abused while they were incarcerated at FCI Tallahassee.
In the complaint for damages in Barnett’s suit, Cook alleged that FCI Tallahassee officials were “well aware of numerous other sexual assaults on inmates by prison employees.” But the prison “had an informal policy of turning a blind eye to abuse and leaving suspected abusers in a position to continue their abusive conduct,” the lawsuit claimed.
By 2020, Rolston and former BOP guard Jimmy Lee Highsmith had each “sexually abused roughly a dozen known women,” according to the lawsuit. But Cook told The Appeal that the number of victims could easily be higher.
Over the course of nearly 20 years, Cook said he and his law partner Rick Johnson have taken on more than a dozen different lawsuits involving allegations of sexual abuse by staff at FCI Tallahassee, including cases against both Rolston and Highsmith. One of Cook’s first cases, in 2003, involved a woman who was raped by Officer Jeffrey Linton. Linton was criminally convicted but received only probation.
In these cases, Cook says, it is common for additional women to come forward to support allegations even when the two-year statute of limitations for them to file legal complaints has passed—meaning they are not eligible to seek compensation themselves. But others likely choose to remain silent, either because they have not yet processed their own trauma or because they determine it is not worth risking ongoing retaliation by going public.
Over the past year alone, Cook and Johnson have won roughly $1 million in settlements for women at FCI Tallahassee. Like the cases against Rolston, most have been settled out of court, Cook said, which has allowed the government to avoid admitting harm. Some settlements involving private entities have also included nondisclosure agreements that bar victims from speaking out publicly.
Incarcerated women say Rolston’s ability to skirt more meaningful accountability speaks to the broader culture of cover-up at FCI Tallahassee. Some describe this as a function of a “green wall” of silence in federal prisons, similar to the “blue wall” seen in policing—prison guard uniforms were traditionally green. In some cases against Rolston, for example, female staff and nurses testified that he had acted in a professional manner and did not abuse women during treatments. In one trial, jurors ruled against the plaintiffs after this sort of testimony.
Indeed, under BOP regulations, a woman staffer must be present when a male provider performs breast or pelvic examinations, except in emergency situations. But federal women’s prisons operate under a “sense of patriarchal entitlement,” said Cook. He recalled encountering this environment as far back as 2003, during his first suit against BOP.
“Barriers between guards and women prisoners were illusory. Women who came forward were treated badly. Investigations were halfhearted. Whistleblowers had their careers sabotaged. Nothing changed,” Cook said.
Despite the lengthy list of allegations and lawsuits against Rolston, he remains employed at FCI Tallahassee, but has since been moved to the male facility, according to a BOP spokesperson.
‘Something Has to Change’
In a July 2021 Prison Rape Elimination Act audit, FCI Tallahassee received stellar marks from a contractor with PREA Auditors of America, an LLC that has since rebranded as Corrections Consulting Services. The facility had met or exceeded all 45 standards established under PREA, the auditor concluded. Under federal guidelines, FCI Tallahassee will not be audited again until 2024.
Although the most recent report noted that “the facility had zero grievances of sexual abuse” filed during the previous year, it did document a total of six allegations of sexual abuse in that time. Three complaints were found to be unsubstantiated, according to the report, meaning investigators did not find enough evidence to prove or disprove the allegation. The auditor documented three ongoing criminal investigations into staff abuse of prisoners, all “related to a class action lawsuit against one staff member.” Due to the active status of the probes, however, the report provides little information about the nature of these allegations or whom they were against.
The 2021 audit is, in essence, a complete whitewash, according to accounts from incarcerated sources. But FCI Tallahassee did not get away totally unscathed. Among other issues, the report documented deficiencies around processes for prisoners to report sexual assault. In random interviews with 34 incarcerated people, the auditor concluded that “none were aware of the outside reporting entity”—the Office of the Inspector General. The auditor gave the facility a passing grade on this standard, however, writing that “this information is posted throughout the unit, found in the inmate handbook and is on the inmate computer system.”
There was also confusion around the “level of confidentiality” prisoners could expect in calls to the toll-free rape crisis hotline numbers posted around FCI Tallahassee. While most interviewees reported that “they believed that any contact with these services would be confidential,” the auditor clarified that under BOP policy, “confidential is not the same as privileged communication and as such communication is monitored consistent with security practices.” Additional “information related to limits of confidentiality” was not available, according to the report. In other words, while calls to these outside agencies are officially considered “confidential,” they are still monitored—likely unbeknownst to some callers.
In a written statement to The Appeal, a BOP spokesperson said that while all “general phone calls” are subject to monitoring, prisoners “may request an unmonitored telephone call through their unit team staff that would allow them to call either their attorney or [a rape crisis hotline] directly.” But this assumes prisoners are aware that they would have to specifically request an unmonitored call in order to avoid surveillance.
The failure of the latest PREA audit to capture problems of sexual assault at FCI Tallahassee reflects a much longer-standing issue at the prison. Before 2021, the facility had contracted with Nakamoto Group for its PREA auditing services. Nakamoto has been named in a string of lawsuits over the past decade alleging neglect in its inspections of detention facilities across the country. The 2021 civil suit filed by four FCI Tallahassee prisoners against Rolston also named the Nakamoto Group, accusing the company of “consistently fail[ing] to conduct thorough examinations of critical facility functions” during audits dating back to at least 2014.
Even when sexual abuse by staff is identified in federal prisons, individuals are rarely held accountable. According to the most recent data from the BJS, prison staffers identified as “perpetrators” of sexual misconduct ultimately pleaded guilty or were convicted, sentenced, or even fined in only 6 percent of cases. The study, which covered substantiated incidents in state and federal prisons between 2016 and 2018, appears to point to a pattern of impunity around issues of sexual violence.
Last December, U.S. senators on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hosted a hearing on Capitol Hill during which they unveiled the results of a bipartisan eight-month probe into the abuse of women in federal prisons.
“Our findings are deeply disturbing and demonstrate, in my view, that the BOP is failing systemically to prevent, detect, and address sexual abuse of prisoners by its own employees,” said Senator Jon Ossoff, the Georgia Democrat who led the investigation, during opening remarks.
The event featured chilling testimony from three survivors of sexual violence in various BOP facilities who recounted being targeted, manipulated, and raped by staffers who left them feeling traumatized and powerless.
“Because of his position, my attacker could and did access my personal history files, recordings of my telephone calls, and personal emails, giving him additional leverage to extract sexual favors and threaten my safety,” testified Linda De La Rosa, who was among at least four women who faced sexual assault at the hands of a correctional officer at FMC Lexington, in Kentucky.
The event set the stage for the passage of a bill requiring BOP to upgrade and repair surveillance camera systems at federal prisons, which President Joe Biden signed into law in late December. Broken prison cameras are “enabling corruption, misconduct, and abuse,” Ossoff, the bill’s sponsor, said at the time.
While the focus on cameras may strike some as a commonsense measure to improve transparency in federal prisons, the legislation appears to follow arguments similar to those made in favor of police body cameras over the past decade. Yet the proliferation of these devices appears to have done little to slow police violence and misconduct, with law enforcement killings reaching at least a 10-year high in 2022. Critics often note that police ultimately have control over whether cameras are turned on during critical incidents. They’ve also expressed concern about the lack of independent oversight around recorded footage—an issue that seems likely to arise in prisons as well.
The DOJ has also stepped up its response amid the Senate investigation, announcing in November that it was taking “immediate action to crack down on sexual misconduct by federal prison employees and improve handling of complaints.” A month before, the DOJ inspector general went so far as to issue a warning expressing concerns that the BOP was “regularly excluding inmates’ testimony in administrative misconduct investigations.”
Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco has also supported the early release of incarcerated women who have endured sexual assaults behind bars and made other recommendations, including pushing BOP to establish stricter policies to prevent sexual harassment both by and against staff.
Women at FCI Tallahassee say they welcome the recent attention in Washington toward sexual abuse in federal prisons. But some remain highly skeptical of whether the resulting action will come close to meeting the scale of the problem. There was only a fleeting mention of FCI Tallahassee in the Senate report. The subcommittee investigation identified only four BOP facilities in the past decade where “multiple male BOP employees sexually abused multiple female prisoners under their supervision,” and FCI Tallahassee was not listed among them.
Ultimately, the endemic sexual violence and coercion in women’s prisons is just one symptom of the much broader culture of desperation, fear, and repression that these facilities cultivate.
In the month before the Senate hearing last December, The Appeal tried to locate Rachel Padgett at FCI Tallahassee to discuss the current situation at the prison. After days of silence, another incarcerated woman was able to confirm that Padgett had been granted a sudden release from the prison in September under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
While the CARES Act has allowed Padgett and thousands of other minimum-security prisoners to serve out portions of their sentences on home confinement or in halfway houses, her release came with a major caveat: no contact with the media without approval from BOP. Considering the high degree of surveillance at FCI Tallahassee, it seems possible that Padgett’s conversations with The Appeal about sexual abuse may have contributed to her rapid release, which barely gave her a chance to say goodbye to her friends.
Although Padgett’s printed communications with The Appeal took place before the media ban, while she was still incarcerated at FCI Tallahassee, it is clear that BOP’s threats have served their intended purpose. The BOP has sought to punish at least one other CARES Act beneficiary for exercising her First Amendment rights to free speech while out on home confinement, and Padgett has understandably been worried about anything that could land her back at Tally.
“The Bureau of Prisons is rife with misconduct, corruption, violence, and abuse, which has been well-documented by recent congressional hearings and media investigations,” said Liz Komar, sentencing reform counsel for The Sentencing Project. Komar called attention to a host of other issues organizers and advocates raised to BOP Director Colette Peters in an open letter last September.
Without intervention, women say it is unlikely that officials at FCI Tallahassee will turn around its oppressive and unlawful environment of their own volition.
“The conditions keep deteriorating at the federal facilities, staff are overworked, they can’t afford to feed us humanely, prices at commissary are so high that most are a burden to their families,” said Tiffany Arnold, who is currently pursuing her next compassionate release petition in hopes of obtaining relief from the two life sentences she is still facing.
“The system is broken and so many would have benefited from rehabilitation, not imprisonment,” she added. “Something has to change. Things cannot continue to decline at this rate.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote to Liz Komar of The Sentencing Project. Due to a misspelling in court documents, the name of a BOP guard accused of sexual misconduct also appeared incorrectly in a previous version of the story. The spelling has been corrected.