Betty Brink, Opening the Doors on Carswell, Fort Worth Weekly, June 19, 2003.
Shirley: 'Finally, someone believed me.'
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
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
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
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."