‘Utterly powerless:’ Formerly incarcerated women testify about sexual abuse by BOP staff

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A new Senate report is shining a spotlight on the sexual abuse of female prisoners at the hands of Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) employees.

The findings from the bipartisan investigation spearheaded by Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) reveal female inmates have been sexually abused at 19 of 29 federal prisons where women were held over the last decade.

Members of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations heard powerful first-hand testimony Tuesday from formerly incarcerated women who were abused by former federal corrections officers.

Carolyn Richardson was sent to a federal prison in New York City in 2016 for federal drug charges.

Richardson went blind behind bars after staff failed to get her proper medical attention, which later led to a $2 million settlement.

Richardson said her loss of sight made her even more vulnerable to a corrections officer who was supposed to be helping her and taking her to medical appointments for her impaired vision.

Instead, Richardson said he used his position to sexually abuse her.

“I felt utterly powerless,” said Richardson in her testimony. “I felt worthless like I was something less than human, that he can do with as he wished.”

Our Washington News Bureau spoke with Richardson after her testimony wrapped up.

“I want to be a voice for my fellow, you know ladies that’s incarcerated, that they can come forward,” said Richardson.

According to the report, “BOP has failed to successfully implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act.”

It also uncovered a backlog of 8,000 BOP Office of Internal Affairs cases, which includes hundreds of sexual abuse cases.

“Our findings are deeply disturbing and demonstrate in my view that the BOP is failing systematically to prevent, detect and address sexual abuse of prisoners by its own employees,” said Sen. Ossoff.

“It’s our responsibility,” said Sen. Johnson. “We have to face this. We have to do everything we can to eliminate it.”

Linda De La Rosa was formerly incarcerated at a Kentucky federal prison where she says she was sexually abused by a corrections officer.

De La Rosa said that the former officer stayed on the job for years despite the abuse before he was eventually arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 135 months in prison for the sexual abuse.

“I really want the system to change,” said De La Rosa. “I just hope they find a safe way for women to report those types of incidents.”

In response to the findings of the investigation, BOP Director Colette Peters said in a statement in part:

“I welcome accountability and oversight… Employee misconduct is always unacceptable and must never be tolerated. We continue to respond to and investigate reported misconduct, to hold individuals accountable, including by working with criminal investigators and prosecutors to bring criminal charges where appropriate, and to foster change in culture at locations where necessary.”

Peters said the BOP is training employees “on the importance of reporting and how to report misconduct” and said there will be more training in the future as well.