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Invisible Epidemic: Prison Worker Sexual Assault In Washington

caption: File photo.
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File photo.
Flickr Photo/Neil Conway (CC BY2.0)

A few years ago Theresa Nolte fell in love with Kelly Beard, an inmate at the Monroe Correctional Complex. Nolte was a prison staffer.

Consensual or not, sexual contact between prison staffers and inmates is illegal.

Reporter Andrew Mannix argues that such power imbalance raises the question: Can an inmate consent?

“One of the people has the power to put the other in solitary confinement. They have the power whether or not they get a desirable job. They can even make it so they stay in prison longer,” Mannix said, speaking with Ross Reynolds on KUOW’s The Record.

Mannix wrote a special to the Seattle Times about staff sexual misconduct in Washington prisons. According to his report, the number of complaints have quadrupled in the last decade. He called it an invisible epidemic.

“One thing that the Prison Rape Elimination Act has done is shown that this issue of prisoners being abused by staff or other inmates is happening way more than we thought before – and staff does comprise a really large percentage of that,” Mannix said.

These cases range from sexually explicit letters to forcible rape and coercion. Nationally, female staffers are more often the perpetrators of staff sexual misconduct.

However, even with an increase in reports since the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, few have resulted in convictions. The act cast a wider net for actions considered to be sexual misconduct, which likely also contributed to the bump in cases.

From 2012 to 2014 there were 553 referrals to law enforcement concerning prison sexual misconduct in Washington. None resulted in a conviction.

“When we talked to prosecutors and police about this, they said we do take this very seriously, but these cases are really, really difficult to prosecute. And if they don’t think they can prove it to a jury, they’re not going to take the time to charge it,” Mannix said.

That’s a controversial position: Other law experts believe that it sends the message that prison staffers will get away with misconduct.

Mannix said that if the roles were reversed, the punishment would likely be much steeper.

“There is definitely a perception from a lot of people that we just don’t treat inmates the same way that we treat other members of our community largely because we think, ‘Well, they committed a crime. They’re in there for a reason and they don’t deserve the same treatment.’”

As for Nolte, she was fired and arrested on suspicion of “custodial sexual misconduct.” Beard admitted the two had sex, but prosecutors did not file charges against Nolte.

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.

Photo credit: "Untitled," by Neil Conway on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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