A female inmate awarded $1.3 million because she was sexually assaulted by a prison guard was victimized during a period in which 197 reports of sexual misconduct were made against state prison staff.
Of the complaints logged between 2005 and 2007, 62 cases were substantiated and resulted in firings, Colorado Department of Corrections spokeswoman Katherine Sanguinetti said Thursday.
The DOC's Inspector General turned over the complaints to local prosecutors.
One, the 2006 case involving former prison Sgt. Leshawn Terrell, was an example of "horrific violence" that moved U.S. Circuit Judge David Ebel to lambaste the way the department handles sexual assault by its employees in his decision to award $1.3 million to the inmate.
Ebel said the sexual abuse of inmates "remains distressingly common in Colorado prisons."
"Further, the court received evidence that it is not uncommon for CDOC to have to dismiss prison staff at the Denver complex because of sexual misconduct," he wrote.
The prisoner said Terrell coerced her into performing sex acts for five months. When she finally refused him, she says, he raped her.
In addition to the money Terrell must pay the victim, the DOC settled its case with her with a $250,000 payment.
Corrections officials say they will use the lawsuit in employee training.
Employees who work with prisoners undergo extensive background checks, including an evaluation of their integrity and close relationships, Sanguinetti said. They also receive ongoing training.
"One of the things I guarantee will happen because of this case as we talk to our staff in our refresher trainings is that they can be liable personally if they step outside the lines of our policies and procedures," she said. "Quite frankly, we hope it does set an example for people in these positions, not just in Colorado but across the country."
As part of the settlement, the DOC installed cameras in the kitchen of the Denver Women's Correctional Facility, where the assaults occurred, said the woman's attorney, Mari Newman.
"This is an extraordinarily important opinion which will have a major ripple effect on prisons Colorado and nationwide," Newman said. "This was a case in which a guard was essentially treating female inmates, including my client, as playthings for his own sexual gratification."
The Denver Post is withholding the prisoner's name because she is a victim of sexual assault. She is serving time on burglary, drug and escape charges and is eligible for parole in October, records show.
Terrell, 38, could not be reached for comment Thursday. He resigned from the Corrections Department in 2007 and did not respond to the lawsuit.
Court records say that on Mother's Day 2006, Terrell approached the inmate during her shift in the prison kitchen and told her that in exchange for sex, he would "take care of her."
After the first encounter, Terrell expected her to perform sex acts with him almost every shift, the documents say.
In October 2006, the woman refused him. Terrell got angry, raped the prisoner and left her bleeding on the floor of the bakery cooler, court records show.
"For nearly two years following the rape, (she) suffered pain and bleeding when she defecated," Ebel wrote in his decision, handed down Wednesday. "She repeatedly attempted to get help. . . . Rather than doing an examination, the (DOC) medical staff told (her) to use stool softeners, Milk of Magnesia, or hemorrhoid cream."
The inmate had surgery for her injuries after she filed her lawsuit.
Though the woman didn't initially report the rape when charges were brought against Terrell, in his ruling, Ebel also criticized Denver prosecutors.
"This court is appalled that despite CDOC's 'zero tolerance' and 'aggressive prosecution' policy — and despite the horrific violence of the Oct. 7, 2006, rape — the Denver District Attorney permitted Terrell to plead to a Class 1 misdemeanor offense that carried a 60-day term of imprisonment," Ebel wrote.
Denver DA's office spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough said the victim accepted the plea agreement and did not want the case go to trial or to testify.
She said prosecutors are "100 percent" in support of a zero-tolerance policy on sexual misconduct, but they have to be able to prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.
Proving the rape charge, which could have been a Class 4 felony sexual-assault charge, might have been difficult because of credibility issues with the victim, Kimbrough said.
Because of the guilty plea, Terrell is now under court supervision and registered as a sex offender.
"Having a guilty-plea agreement was a sure thing," Kimbrough said. "Going forward to trial in this case would not have been a sure thing."