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Nearly 200 Women Have Told of Being Raped, Abused in a Georgia Prison Scandal So Broad Even Officials Say It's . . . : A 13-Year Nightmare

December 30, 1992|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. — Outside, the prison resembles nothing so much as a low-lying suburban office park or a modern middle school. It sits in a wooded area far off the main road south of Milledgeville, acentral Georgia town of antebellum mansions and a distinctly Southern air.

Five prisons are clustered here, not counting a youth detention facility, making the care and feeding of convicts the economic lifeblood of the area. In such a setting, the Georgia Women's Correctional Institution is an utterly unremarkable presence.

Its appearance is at odds, however, with the image conjured by stories of late--stories of rape, of pregnancies and forced abortions, of women prisoners left stripped and bound for weeks.

The women--Jane Does, they are called--have been coming forward for months, almost 200 in all. They tell of women treated like dogs, bound and fed from dishes shoved under their faces; of guards photographing women engaged in sex acts; of inmates being taken off the grounds to work as prostitutes.

The allegations, in their totality, suggest a prison out of control, a place where even the men in charge--and, perhaps significantly, they \o7 were\f7 men--tolerated, if not condoned, rampant abuse for at least 13 years.

"They allowed this whole culture of abuse (to develop)," says Robert Cullen, a legal services attorney representing the inmates in a class-action lawsuit. "Abuse was OK. It didn't matter. . . . Everybody became sort of inoculated to the abuse that was ongoing."

Sex between guards and female inmates is a given in prison--whether consensual or coerced, it has always taken place. A number of states, including California, Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan and New York, have had similar controversies. But Brenda Smith, director of the Women in Prison Project of the National Women's Law Center, says she knows of no investigation as widespread as the one in Georgia.

For a long time, prison officials here did not want to believe the allegations of sexual abuse. Now, they are convinced a good number are true. Allen Ault, special assistant to the corrections commissioner appointed in October to address the problem, says he has talked with some of the women and "most of the stories that I've heard have been credible."

At least partly acknowledging the problem, state prison officials fired one warden and demoted another Dec. 7 because of their poor stewardship. Also, 14 prison employees were indicted last month for abusing inmates.

The report of one former prisoner, 29-year-old Phyllis Hoffman, is typical. Hoffman, now a waitress in a south Georgia short-order restaurant, says she was raped by a guard while on a work detail on the prison grounds.

The guard, Michael Harvey, allegedly forced her to have sex after taking her into the woods to collect pine straw, says Hoffman, who was imprisoned for possession of crack cocaine. But she says the harassment began long before that.

"He slung his authority around, got people scared of him," she says of Harvey, whom she also alleges forcefully kissed her twice, once wrapping a towel around her neck and pushing her against a wall.

Rather than report the assaults, Hoffman says, she "played sick" to keep from going on work details and was transferred to another prison.

"A lot of things happened to me when I was young that made me keep quiet," notes Hoffman, who says she was raped as a child. "I felt like if I said anything, nobody would have believed me."

She recently filed a $1.5-million lawsuit against the prison system, alleging "a policy of indifference that permitted female prisoners to be used for sexual gratification by prison officers and employees."

Harvey, who has been fired, has denied misconduct and appealed his dismissal. He has been charged with aggravated sodomy, rape, sodomy and sexual assault against a person in custody.

At a recent appeals hearing on the firing of another guard, Lt. James Philyaw, an inmate trembled as she testified.

"I hate him," said the woman, identified only as Jane Doe 14. "He used his power against many women in that prison. He used us like we were whores."

What is different about these allegations is not only their depth and breadth, but also the duration of the abuse, says Cullen.

Some allegations go back to 1979, even before a similar prison scandal resulted in the firing of a deputy warden and the passing of legislation making it a felony for guards to engage in sex with prisoners, one of the few such laws in the nation.

But critics say the law had little effect within the facility: Sexual abuse was unabated. And although in some cases sexual relations between inmates and staff were consensual, corrections officials say that also will no longer be tolerated.

Officials say the problems here are a manifestation of strains that affected women's prisons nationally during the 1980s, as their combined population tripled to a record 40,556--mostly the result of a staggering 307% increase in women's drug arrests. Prison staffing and training lagged.

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