Marina Cuevas didn't think twice when a male prison guard summoned her to clean the kitchen one night at the Dwight Correctional Center in rural Illinois. But when he hustled her into a dark utility room, she froze.
"He told me, 'You got a lot of years to do. You're gonna need a friend,' " says Mrs. Cuevas, who was starting a 27-year sentence for killing an abusive boyfriend. The guard forced himself on her and, for the first of more than a dozen times, Cuevas endured sex with him, she says.
"In my case, it was the only way out," the petite Hispanic woman recalled last week in the visitor's room at Dwight. She says the guard, her assigned escort, had threatened a few days earlier to report her for attempting to escape - a charge she denied. "You can't fight tooth and nail. You just stay quiet and then it's over," she says, gazing stone-faced onto the snow-covered grounds outside.
Cuevas's story underscores a serious and widespread problem largely hidden behind US prison walls: the sexual abuse and rape of female inmates by male correctional employees, according to a report released yesterday by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
Scores of cases of sexual abuse emerged during the group's investigation of 11 state prisons in Illinois, Georgia, California, Michigan, New York, and the District of Columbia between March 1994 and November 1996. Monitoring the total number of incidents was impossible, however, since only Georgia's correctional system keep a reliable central databases.
Complaints of abuse have increased as women flood into the prison system. Since 1980, the number of women entering US prisons has surged nearly 400 percent, double the incarceration rate increase for males. In Illinois, the female population of state prisons has increased 600 percent.
Most US women's prisons are guarded by men despite international rules discouraging the practice, the report says. At Dwight, nearly half the guards are men.
"Male officers have not only used actual or threatened physical force, but have also used their near total authority to provide or deny foods and privileges to female prisoners to compel them to have sex, or ... to reward them for having done so," states the report.
The culture of submission and control that breeds sexual misconduct in prisons is similar to that in the US military, with an important difference: "Women in the army can at least leave. Women in prison cannot escape," says Dorothy Thomas, author of the Human Rights Watch report.
Ms. Thomas predicts such misconduct "will flourish" until more effective grievance policies, independent investigatory procedures, and laws are adopted to hold employees accountable.
Women inmates who attempt to halt abuse often face major obstacles, say prisoner advocates. Corrections officials, who usually investigate such allegations, tend to discount the prisoners' testimony while trusting guards. Outside oversight of investigations is rare.
Corrections officials in Illinois denounced the Human Rights Watch report as "inaccurate," "sloppy research," and "a scandal sheet."
Prosecuting employees is difficult. Many states, including Illinois and 17 others, have no law that specifically bars prison employees from having sexual relations with inmates.
Indeed, women frequently face retaliation for reporting sexual contacts with prison officers, either in the form of harassment by staff or actual punishment - ranging from a loss of privileges to a longer sentence - if authorities believe the sex was "consensual."
Corrections officials assert that women inmates not only willingly have sex with male staff, but in some cases seduce them.
"There are definitely instances where the inmate has manipulated the staff and very intentionally developed relationships," says Susan Weidel, chief legal counsel of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). It is "preposterous and ridiculous" to suggest that "female inmates who are involved in sexual misconduct with male staff should receive no discipline," she says.
Yet critics say that such discipline backfires by discouraging women from speaking out. "Many women refuse to talk because they see what happens to those who do," says Margaret Byrne, an attorney with the Chicago-based Prisoner Legal Services.
Corrections authorities in Illinois and other states maintain that cases of sexual abuse of women prisoners are isolated and readily dealt with by existing policies.
Nevertheless, a more chronic problem is suggested by events at Dwight, Illinois's only all-female prison, which houses more than 670 inmates southwest of Chicago.
According to lawyers, employees, corrections department officials, and inmates involved, at least eight confirmed cases of officers engaged in sexual misconduct were uncovered at Dwight in the past year.
The illicit sex involved officers from all shifts and ranks, from patrol guards to captains. Using radios and lookouts, the officers covered for each other. They engaged in sexual acts in basements, boiler rooms, tool rooms, closets, and bathrooms. "They don't care about [a woman's] age, color, weight - all they care is that there is a chance," says Cuevas.
One officer smuggled negligees into prison under his uniform along with gifts of candy bars and pop. Another, a captain, inadvertently locked himself in the back of a van with an inmate he was inappropriately touching. He was discovered after breaking a window to escape, IDOC officials and inmates say.
In all, eight male officers resigned or were placed on leave without pay. In keeping with Illinois's precedent, none have been prosecuted for sexual crimes, though indictments may be forthcoming.
As for Cuevas, she had learned to stay quiet about sexual activity after she reported the first guard in 1987 and no action was taken. So early this year, Cuevas says fear kept her silent when two other guards separately demanded sex with her.
But when state investigators came to her, she confirmed the incidents and was accused of consensual sex. In March, she was ordered to spend a year in segregation, locked up 23 hours a day. She has lost phone and other privileges, and must wear shackles even in the shower. Worst, she lost a year of "good time," and must stay in prison a year longer.
"I cooperated with them, and the consequences are - this," she said, holding up two shackled wrists.