WASHINGTON -- Widespread sexual abuse of female inmates continues to plague federal prisons and accountability measures for staff have not contained the scourge of such violence, according to a Senate investigative report released Tuesday.
Women were abused by prison staff in at least 19 of the 29 federal facilities that held female inmates since 2012, the bipartisan report from the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found. The Bureau of Prisons opened 5,415 cases alleging sexual abuse by federal employees from 2012 to 2022.
Former inmate and survivor Briane Moore testified before the subcommittee on Tuesday, recounting how she was raped by an officer while she was imprisoned at a federal facility in West Virginia. She said the officer, a captain at the prison, would take her to private areas of the facility to abuse her out of sight of surveillance cameras.
"I knew he had the power to prevent me from being transferred to a prison closer to my family closer to my daughter," Moore said. "He was a captain with total control over me. I had no choice but to obey."
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She said that she feared getting placed in solitary confinement if she tried to report the officer and was aware of other women who were punished for reporting abuse.
The slow pace of accountability for inmate sexual abuse, combined with limited resources for internal investigators, puts inmates at continued risk, the report found. The Bureau of Prisons' Office of Internal Affairs has a case backlog of about 8,000, some of which have been pending for more than five years.
The investigative panel, a part of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, is led by Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff, who has focused on prison abuse and misconduct.
"This situation is intolerable," Ossoff said at Tuesday's hearing "Sexual abuse of inmates is a gross abuse of human and constitutional rights and cannot be tolerated by the United States Congress. It is cruel and unusual punishment that violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and basic standards of human decency."
Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters, who was appointed in July, appeared at the hearing and was asked by Ossoff why the bureau hasn't made systemic changes to prevent abuse, given the volume of alleged and corroborated complaints.
"I wish I had a good answer to that question," Peters said. "What I can tell you is that when you look at the institutions that you're highlighting -- and you see an institution that has been riveted with cases it's it's hard to explain -- it's hard to understand how systemic changes were not implemented."
Peters said she has worked since her appointment to inspect prisons and transition from prior Bureau of Prisons leadership. Citing reports of abuse by prison leaders, she called it "absolutely egregious," nothing that extreme power differences while in custody make it impossible for inmates to consent to sex with law enforcement.
"I welcome accountability and oversight and I welcome this hearing," Peters said. "We must come to this work with our arms wide open."
Peters said she will aim to improve internal surveillance systems and introduce body cameras as long as there's sufficient funding in place from Congress.
Earlier this year, Ossoff led a Senate panel exposing corruption and misconduct at a federal penitentiary in Georgia. At the time, he said prison staff allowed massive amounts of contraband to flow into the facilities.
"Contraband is the beginning of sexual assault," Peters said on Tuesday, adding that cell phones are often used to coordinate prison crimes between inmates and are a major threat to security.
During her initial testimony, Moore expressed regret for the drug offense that landed her in prison. She explained that after having a daughter at age 17, she was looking for extra money and began selling crack cocaine.
"I'm not an activist or someone who's normally -- who would normally use my voice like I am today," Moore told the panel. "Speaking about my experience in such a public setting is incredibly hard. I'm willing to do so because other women are still in prison and I am out. I hope that they will not have to go through what I went through."