Correctional officers in Illinois are pushing for a law passed in the state that protects workers from sexual threats while on the job to take hold nationwide.

Driven by reports of corrections staff facing indecent exposure by inmates and vulgar, sometimes violent, sexual remarks, an effort rose within U.S. Penitentiary Thomson to call for a law that adds criminal penalties for such behavior. Over the summer, Illinois’ state legislature amended the criminal code to make lewd sexual displays in a penal facility by an inmate a misdemeanor or a felony, in repeated instances.

A national law is needed “to protect our correctional workers from sexual attacks from inmates at all federal prisons,” said Jon Zumkehr, president of a local American Federation of Government Employees chapter, in a statement. “Victims of sexual assault crimes experience significant trauma, and these profound and understandable fears may keep victims from coming forward.”

The union alleged more than 300 incidents in 2022 of inmates exposing themselves or engaging in sexual acts in front of staff at Thomson. Since then, the conversion of Thomson to a low-security prison has accompanied a dramatic reduction in reported sexual misconduct, alongside new leadership and the state law.

Warden Brian Lammer, who responded to Federal Times’ questions via email, said as of Feb. 27, there have been no instances of engaging in sexual acts and one incident of sexual proposals or threats this year.

“I attribute the reduction in misconduct to the population change, as we have transitioned to a low-security facility,” he said. “Most individuals in our custody at FCI Thomson are new commits or have worked their way down to being at a low [security] facility.”

Lammer declined to confirm reports of sexual misconduct preceding his takeover of Thomson in 2023, citing ongoing investigations, but said that during admission and orientation for new prison residents, he reiterates his expectations that there is “zero tolerance for these types of incidents.” When they do occur, he said, they are referred to the U.S. attorney’s office for potential prosecution.

The federal corrections system has been scrutinized heavily by Congress lately. Last month, lawmakers held two hearings, one addressing chronic understaffing and pay issues, and another revealing devastating reports of deaths in custody and overuse of restrictive housing by bureau employees. The Justice Department’s independent watchdog has also cited are reports of BOP personnel assaulting inmates.

“To be clear, these are not new problems, but rather problems that are over a decade in the making,” said Michael Horowitz, inspector general, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The case for a federal law

Illinois’ law took effect Jan. 1, and while it’s been a welcome reform that promises some measure of accountability independent from local prison leadership, it’s limited to the state’s borders. Across the country, there are 15 high-security BOP facilities and dozens of medium-level ones, according to the website’s listings. And there are reports that aggressive sexual behavior has occurred in other units besides Thomson.

“I didn’t realize how prevalent it was until I, myself, had to go through it,” said one current female officer who requested anonymity to prevent retaliation. “To this day, I mentally prepare myself.”

A February inspector general report found in a survey it conducted that 69% of staff who reported being sexually harassed by an inmate were female, compared to about 30% of males. Women made up 40% of all survey respondents, while 59% of all survey respondents were male. And from 2016 to 2020, the BOP settled civil lawsuits related to inmate-on-staff sexual harassment, costing the agency $31.7 million.

In a list of 98 facilities, Thomson ranked 15th overall for its number of reported harassment incidents against staff. Three facilities logged more than 100 complaints each, according to the watchdog report.

“I don’t care how good the retirement is,” said a former Thomson employee who requested anonymity to discuss harassment she endured while working. “I would rather work until I’m 70. I would rather struggle to pay my bills, live paycheck to paycheck. I would rather do all of that than have to stay there and continue to endure this almost every day.”

The other concern voiced by officers and union leaders was that their complaints were met with skepticism or silence by management in previous years, which compounded the trauma of coming forward after such an emotionally jarring experience.

It’s also why advocates are pushing for a federal law mirroring Illinois’ that would ensure uniformity across the prison system, especially as inmates move between facilities somewhat routinely.

Such a law would help clearly communicate criminal consequences of engaging in sexual misconduct toward staff, said Heidi Burakiewicz, a discrimination attorney who led a class action suit against the Bureau of Prisons in 2017. Her case, which represented more than 500 prison employees, settled for $20 million.

“When I had my case against the federal government, it was really important to send a message [to inmates that] this won’t be tolerated,” she said in an interview with Federal Times. “The one thing every manager agreed on — and I deposed very high level officials within the federal Bureau of Prisons — is if we have rules, we have to enforce them.”

With a federal law, it would no longer be the case that exposing oneself to staff is a criminal violation in one state but not in another, she said.

“If the federal law and penalties were stronger, however, then the prosecutors may be more willing to exercise their discretion to pursue charges,” she said.

Protect and Serve Act

To be sure: there’s not likely any single measure that prevents harassment from happening, but such a law giving corrections workers an oversight mechanism independent from management can be another tool in the toolbox.

“My experience is that [prosecution] is the most powerful tool that reaches the biggest percentage of inmates,” Burakiewicz said.

Another legal avenue officers are seeking is an amendment to the bipartisan Protect and Serve Act that would tack on protections for corrections officers in addition to other law enforcement officials. The bill has now more than 100 cosponsors and is sitting in the House Judiciary Committee. Amending a preexisting bill may be a more expedient path to a legislative fix, Zumkehr said.

Congress is back in session April 8.

“BOP employees across the country deserve a workplace free from sexual misconduct,” said Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst in a statement.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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