Sexual contact between a prison guard and an inmate should be presumed to be coercive, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a claim by an Idaho prison inmate who said a female guard groped him sexually after he tried to break off a romantic, but nonsexual, relationship with her.
A district court had ruled that two incidents in which the guard allegedly touched the prisoner's genitals were consensual because the romantic relationship had not clearly ended.
But the 9th Circuit said the imbalance in power between a prisoner and guard makes "it difficult to discern consent from coercion."
Courts should assume that sexual activity between guards and prisoners is not consensual unless proved otherwise, the panel ruled in a decision that affects California and other Western states.
"Because of the enormous power imbalance between prisoners and prison guards, labeling a prisoner's decision to engage in sexual conduct in prison as 'consent' is a dubious proposition," Judge Betty B. Fletcher, a President Carter appointee, wrote for the court.
The appeals court said sexual abuse in prisons was rampant and should be viewed as akin to sexual activity between adults and minors.
"Just as power inequities between adults and minors, teachers and students, and owners and slaves foster opportunities for sexual abuse, so too does the prisoner-guard relationship," Fletcher wrote.
Although the Idaho prisoner insisted that he never consented to the groping, other inmates sometimes trade sexual favors for privileges, such as gum, cigarettes, more phone time and longer visits with children, the court said. Intimate contact under such conditions should not be viewed as voluntary, the court said.
The ruling stemmed from a civil rights case brought by Lance Conway Wood. He said he and Sandra de Martin, the guard, had a romantic relationship that he tried to end when he became suspicious that she was married. Adultery violated his religious beliefs, he said.
But de Martin wanted to continue the romance and on two occasions entered his cell and touched him intimately, he said.
"You know you want it," Wood quoted her as saying. He said he objected.
Before those incidents, the two had kissed and hugged but had no sexual contact, he said.
Wood said he eventually complained to the guard's superior, and de Martin was transferred to another prison.
After the district judge threw out the sexual harassment charges, a trial was held on Wood's other claims, including allegations that de Martin subjected him to aggressive, sexual pat searches in retaliation for his having rejected her. The jury found the pat-downs did not violate Wood's constitutional rights.
Wood did not challenge the jury verdict, but appealed the dismissal of his other claims. The 9th Circuit agreed that the district judge had properly dismissed charges of retaliation but gave Wood the opportunity to have his sexual harassment claims heard by a jury.