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Woman recalls attack by jail guard

Mayra Soto describes her ordeal to a federal panel examining prison rape. Immigrants are particularly vulnerable to such abuses.

December 14, 2006|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

A transgender woman who was sexually assaulted by a guard while in immigration custody in San Pedro tearfully recounted her experience Wednesday to visiting members of a federal commission examining prison rape.

Mayra Soto, 33, said she was waiting to meet with her lawyer at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in San Pedro when a guard entered her cell with his pants unzipped and ordered her to perform oral sex on him twice. The incident occurred in December 2003, after Soto had been arrested in Santa Ana on suspicion of prostitution. Soto had entered the United States illegally from Mexico.

"To this day, the thought of it makes me nauseous.... It is difficult to comprehend how a federal employee who was supposed to ensure a secure environment could abuse power in such a flagrant manner," Soto told members of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. Soto spoke in Spanish; her remarks were translated by an interpreter.

The bipartisan commission was in Los Angeles to hold a public hearing specifically on immigration detention facilities. Commission Chairman Reggie B. Walton, a federal judge, said immigrants in custody may be especially vulnerable to sexual attack because "so many will be deported" before they can report offenses.

The commission was founded in 2003 after congressional investigators estimated 1 million inmates had been raped from 1983 to 2003 in prisons and jails. Its eight members include former corrections officials, lawyers, academics and human rights activists.

Appearing before the panel were immigrant rights advocates, lawyers and current and former government officials, including Asa Hutchinson, former undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Soto told the commission the attack on her occurred in a holding cell next to the room where she was to meet her lawyer. When the guard entered the cell and ordered her to engage in a sex act, Soto said, "He spoke in such a threatening tone I feared unless I complied he would hurt me."

After the guard left, Soto said, she wiped his semen off the floor with a paper towel to use as evidence. When she met with her lawyer that afternoon, she immediately told her of the offense, and her attorney sent the interpreter out of the interview room to report the accusation to a supervisor.

The guard later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail, Soto said. Soto called the sentence "completely inadequate" and said she was deported soon after the officer's guilty plea in 2004.

In 2005, Soto reentered the U.S. illegally and was arrested for loitering in Los Angeles. She was returned to San Pedro, where she was housed with male inmates. Soto said she was harassed by inmates until a fight broke out between two men who each wanted to "own" her.

She was then placed in protective custody, which she likened to solitary confinement. She was alone in a small cell 23 hours a day without reading material or activities to pass the time, she said. A federal judge eventually granted Soto permission to remain in the United States legally on the basis she might be persecuted in Mexico, she said.

She said she hoped her testimony would improve conditions for other detainees.

Commissioner Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a University of South Dakota professor who studies sex abuse in prisons, praised Soto for her "tremendous courage" and said her tale of abuse was "all very hard to hear."

Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, told the panel that some female detainees in Miami who reported sexual abuse have been transferred to maximum security jails. "The message is clear: If you complain, you will be transferred to a place far removed from your lawyer and loved ones," Little said.

Little also said that guards and staff members who report abuses are "labeled as troublemakers or whiners." Little said such problems call for increased federal oversight of the detention centers.

Hutchinson, who oversaw the federal detention centers as a Bush appointee, said Homeland Security's office of civil rights needs to visit more detention centers. He said that further engaging consular offices of detainees' home countries could prevent abuses. He also noted that the extent of sexual abuse in detention centers is unknown because of poor record-keeping. "There's insufficient tracking of complaints," he said.

The commission is expected to report its findings by 2008.

peter.hong@latimes.com

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