MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- The first of dozens of sexual assault and harassment lawsuits that women have filed against West Virginia jails and prisons is set to be tried in December, but the cases will likely play out in court for years to come.
The case that could go to trial Dec. 12 in Kanawha County Circuit Court involves Jessica Legg, a Mason County resident who says she was victimized while in the Anthony Correctional Center in 2008. That prison houses 18- to 22-year-old offenders.
In all, Huntington attorney Mike Woelfel says he has 61 clients and 50 pending cases against the West Virginia Division of Corrections and the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, and against individual corrections officers.
Eight cases involving civil rights violations were transferred to federal court and have been settled, Woelfel said, while trial dates have been set in Kanawha County for 15 others. Some allegations are still being reviewed.
Woelfel began suing West Virginia in 2009, alleging a widespread pattern of sexual misconduct by male guards. The misconduct was particularly acute at the Southern Regional Jail and Beckley Correctional Center in Raleigh County and Lakin Correctional Center in Mason County, he said.
The lawsuits follow a pattern that California-based Just Detention International sees over and over, said executive director Lovisa Stannow. Correctional staff "take advantage of their incredible power over inmates - first to abuse them and then to also make sure that the inmates stay quiet about what happened," she said.
It's rare for prison victims to formally report their abuse, and rarer still to see civil lawsuits, she said. Besides the "code of silence in the world of corrections," prosecutors are generally uninterested in prison rape cases. Few attorneys are willing to tackle the issue either, Stannow said.
But lawsuits are a form of oversight, sending powerful messages to survivors, abusers and to the system. They allow victims to seek justice and remind survivors who have yet to come forward that they are victims.
"One party literally holds the key to the other party's freedom," Stannow said, "so there can be no consensual sex."
In 2009, Michigan reached a $100 million settlement with as many as 900 female inmates who underwent sexual assaults, groping or harassment from prison guards over 16 years.
The West Virginia abuse also came in all forms, Woelfel said, from asking women to expose themselves or have sex with each other to peeping into bathroom stalls and showers. In some cases, guards exposed themselves and masturbated.
The cases use essentially the same language, offer few details about the abuse and name not only individual correctional officers and the state agencies, but also unnamed "John Doe" defendants who collectively "conspired with, aided and abetted, acted as a lookout, served as an accessory" and otherwise facilitated the misconduct.
The complaints accuse the state of multiple acts of negligence, including failures of training, supervision and intervention that allowed a "continuing practice and pattern of sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual assault" of inmates. The lawsuits seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Joe Thornton, secretary of the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said his agency takes all accusations seriously and investigates them thoroughly, conducting an internal review and an independent investigation by law enforcement.
"All correctional employees, which includes jails and juvenile services, are reminded of their responsibilities as employees of their respective divisions, the department and the state of West Virginia," Thornton wrote in an email Tuesday. "There is zero tolerance if allegations are proven, and the resulting action is swift."
Allen Beck, senior statistical adviser with the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, has overseen national surveys and data collection from jails and prisons since Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003.
The most recent data, based on a 2008-09 survey of nearly 80,000 prisoners, suggests 2.8 percent of prison inmates and 2 percent of jail inmates experienced some level of sexual victimization involving staff in the preceding year. That translates to 41,200 prison inmates and 15,800 jail inmates nationwide, he said.
Beck said the figures are not based on official reports from correctional authorities, but from confidential, self-administered surveys done on a computer.
"Are they still too low? They may well be. There may be some underreporting," he said. "I suspect there may be over-reporting as well."
Beck said surveys are just snapshots in time, but they have yielded consistent results: Victimization rates in 2007 were virtually identical to the second survey. A third is currently under way.
Woelfel said a number of West Virginia employees have been fired or allowed to resign since the lawsuits began.
"To the extent that some of these rotten apples are gone, that's a major plus," he said. "Although this is still going on and tolerated in our state, major efforts have been under way to correct the problem at the state level."
Thornton, however, would not say whether any staff departures have been linked to the lawsuits.
"Employees resign on a regular basis and for many reasons," he said.
Stannow, however, said abusers are too often quietly fired or allowed to resign without facing charges.
"Sexual abuse - when it's dealt with at all - is dealt with as a problem rather than a crime," she said. "That's in fact not good enough: Sexual abuse in detention is a crime, a serious crime. It shatters the lives of the victims, and the perpetrators have to be held accountable."