Tim McGlone, VA inmates file suits to stop prison violence, The Virginian-Pilot, June 24, 2010
Thirty-five inmates at a Virginia prison, fed up with rape and sodomy at the institution, have filed federal lawsuits seeking an end to prison violence.
The lawsuits come at the same time a group of prisoner advocates are demanding that the U.S. attorney general implement regulations, ordered by Congress, to eliminate sexual attacks in prisons.
Scott Howard-Smith of Wisconsin says his story is similar to those of other prison rape victims. Imprisoned in Colorado as a nonviolent offender, he was housed with violent gang members who forced him into prostitution. He said he was passed around for $5. His complaints, he said, were ignored.
Howard-Smith spoke Wednesday at a news conference sponsored by Just Detention International, an advocacy group seeking an end to sexual attacks in prisons.
"The attacks that I suffered were devastating," Howard-Smith said. "I was repeatedly raped, assaulted and extorted by members of a notorious white supremacy gang."
The group is trying to put pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder to implement regulations under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a 2003 law passed by Congress with bipartisan support. Wednesday was the deadline for Holder to implement the rules, but his office has indicated it will need several more months.
Virginia says it already has requirements of the act in place, but other states have balked at the law, citing costs. Alabama, for example, said it would cost $58 million to start such a program in that state; New Mexico estimated its cost at $12 million.
Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said the requirements of the Prison Rape Elimination Act are covered in the basic training program for guards and reviewed annually during training.
The department also provides orientation regarding sexual victimization for all incoming male and female offenders, which is repeated if someone is transferred.
"The information provided is adequate to assist inmates if they heed the guidance," Traylor said in an e-mail. "The subject matter covered in orientation includes: ways to avoid sexual victimization, such as avoiding debt, not seeking protection from other inmates, not soliciting favors, not gambling, etc.
"Guidance is also provided regarding courses of action if one is a victim of sexual misconduct or sexual assault and protection is available from prison staff. Counselors/psychologists are available to provide individual guidance and address interpersonal issues," Traylor said.
The department also separates violent, predatory inmates from those who "want to better themselves and take advantage of prison programs," he added.
The inmates who sued say the department hasn't done enough to prevent sexual assaults and other prison violence. But inmate lawsuits, filed by the thousands each year, face significant hurdles, especially when pursued without attorneys, as in these cases.
The lead plaintiff, John R. Lay, a convicted violent sex offender from Northern Virginia, has filed around three dozen lawsuits challenging his imprisonment or claiming civil rights violations.
Other plaintiffs also have violent backgrounds. Linwood Jenkins, 48, is serving a life term for a string of offenses, including maiming, use of a firearm and robbery in Isle of Wight County. Nelson Bradley, 47, is serving life for a Lynchburg homicide. Rodney F. White, 44, is also serving life for rape and robbery in Northern Virginia.
The other 31 suits are pending in the Alexandria federal court. All 35 inmates are at the Nottoway Correctional Center outside Richmond.
The lawsuit contains a long list of complaints, but the chief claim is "widespread gang activity" including rape, sodomy, stabbings, robbery and drug use. Prison officials have ignored their complaints, the suit says.
Four of the inmates, who filed suits individually earlier this month after being denied class-action status, cleared their first hurdle when a Norfolk federal judge allowed the suits to go forward as long as they submit answers to a questionnaire.
Traylor said the department does not comment on pending litigation.