Coercing Sex Behind Bars

Judy D.'s "date" came for her shortly after midnight. "Get up," he whispered, so as not to disturb her three sleeping bunkmates. But one was already awake. Moments after Judy was led away, Lynn Shaffer slipped out of bed and followed. "He took her to an office," Shaffer recalls. "Through a glass window I saw him leaning, half sitting, against a desk. Judy was on her knees, performing oral sex."

This wasn't a scene from some porn flick. The man was a uniformed guard at the Women's Community Correctional Center on Oahu, Hawaii's largest women's prison. Judy D. was an inmate-and a victim of a racket in which prison staffers have demanded sex in exchange for drugs, favors and promises of more lenient treatment. Curiously, in Hawaii a scandal that elsewhere would spark a public outcry has caused barely a ripple. Shaffer witnessed-and reported-the alleged incident involving Judy D. two years ago. Her story was reported in the local press; she complained to Hawaii's prison authorities and filed a civil-rights suit. A few guards have been suspended. The state Senate has promised an investigation, and city prosecutors are "reviewing" allegations by Shaffer and others of the prison's 100-plus inmates, but no overall reform has taken place. "This has happened to many women," says Shaffer. "It's still happening."

Shaffer, jailed for nine months at WCCC for mismanaging a real-estate trust, has spoken out at some risk. Though never forced into sex herself, she says she was regularly frisked by guards who "grabbed my breasts, my crotch, everything." Since she was furloughed, Shaffer claims to have received anonymous phone calls threatening retaliation, and worries she will be denied parole. Fear of retribution has kept other witnesses from coming forward. Nonetheless, NEWSWEEK has interviewed a dozen former inmates, prison guards and corrections officials at WCCC. Many told their stories publicly for the first time.

Elizabeth E., 27, was sentenced to 10 years in 1989 for cocaine possession. Recently furloughed, she says that soon after her arrival at WCCC one corrections officer "sat down on the bed, stroked my hair and talked." When she went into the bathroom, he followed. "He came in, took off his uniform . . ." She breaks off, sobbing, then recovers to describe how she was forced into having sex. The sexual coercion, she says, culminated earlier this year in an incident where a pair of guards took turns photographing each other having intercourse with her. Her experience, she says, was not rare. Some guards demanded sex in return for favors. "They would bring the girls drugs, candy, perfume," she says. "Or promise extra use of the phone." In her case, the inducement was drugs. "I was an addict," she says. Often the guards threatened the women with solitary confinement. "They said things could go really rough for me," Elizabeth says, if she didn't cooperate. She says she was too frightened to complain.

The reported abuses appear to have gone beyond the prison's walls. At one point, several inmates charge, guards ran a prostitution ring. "They rented rooms at the Pagoda Hotel in downtown Honolulu," says Shaffer, and used inmates as call girls. Gary Nelson, a former guard at the prison, alleges that one guard, still at the prison, acted as pimp: "He took them out in a van, then returned them in time for curfew."

Though difficult to verify individually, such accounts fit a pattern. Janet Bonham, who is now a Honolulu receptionist, was imprisoned for nearly a decade at WCCC after being convicted of murder. She claims to have witnessed "dozens" of instances of abuse of inmates. Mary Robbinalt, a schoolteacher jailed for five months last year for threatening a boy who beat up her daughter, recounts how she routinely heard sounds of sex coming from the bathrooms, how one inmate used to offer sex to a guard who brought her pizza, and how a senior officer would take the prettiest inmates out for spins in his automobile. Ken Austin, a social worker at the prison, believes a quarter of the prison's 100 inmates-and as many as half the prison's 30-odd guards-have been caught up in the alleged sex ring. He resigned last year, accusing administrators of "turning a blind eye toward what has been going on."

It is not rare for prisoners to be sexually assaulted by guards. "It happens frequently," says Mark Lopez, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington. But usually they are isolated incidents. Only Louisiana has experienced what Lopez calls the "systemic" abuse seen in Hawaii's women's prison. There are signs that that may soon change. WCCC's director, Renee Coester, declined to be interviewed for this article. So did officers of the state's union of corrections officers. But the head of Hawaii's prisons, George Sumner, acknowledges the problem. "Officers who knew what was going on appear to have looked the other way," he says. "[Those who are guilty] ought to be fired, or go to jail."

Sumner earlier this year began probing 22 cases of alleged misconduct at WCCC; five male guards have now been suspended or dismissed. But while it is a felony for guards to have sexual contact with inmates, none has so far been indicted. The difficulty, Sumner has found, is getting witnesses to come forward-and gathering sufficient evidence to prosecute a criminal case in court when the accusers all have criminal records. Meanwhile, Sumner plans to reassign (and in some cases fire) other members of the prison's staff, replacing male guards with females and retraining those who stay. The mystery is why that has taken so long.