Bulls Behaving Badly

It wasn't Elizabeth Gardesani's idea to confront her tormentor this way.

She could think of a lot of places she would rather be than alone in an office with the man who she said had raped her repeatedly. She could think of plenty of things she would rather say to him other than talking casually about the sex they'd had, pretending to have fond memories of their furtive, painful and hasty encounters.

But talking about sex was required if she wanted any kind of justice. So three months ago, Gardesani paid a social call on Robert Donald Anderson. She wore her state-issued prison clothes and, tucked between breast and armpit, a hidden recording device, also issued by the state -- a wire, as they say on TV.

Gardesani is a petite 45-year-old former nurse. Anderson is several inches taller, seven years younger and considerably heavier. At the time of their last conversation, he was a corrections officer at the Pueblo Minimum Center, where Gardesani was serving a seven-year sentence on cocaine possession and related charges. The equation of power between the two, inmate and keeper, could not have been more unbalanced.

The wire was the great equalizer.

Gardesani's willingness to gather evidence on Anderson sparked an investigation by the Colorado Department of Corrections into numerous allegations of sexual misconduct by male staff at the Pueblo women's prison. The probe has led to the termination of three guards, the transfer of two others and the filing of criminal charges against Anderson and one other officer. Although the case has received almost no media attention since it began last winter, Gardesani and other inmates say it raises important questions about the ongoing problems the DOC faces with male guards in charge of female prisoners.

"People need to know what's going on," Gardesani says. "This needs to stop somehow."

Mike Rulo, the DOC's inspector general, says the Anderson case is an example of the department's zero-tolerance policy regarding staff who abuse prisoners or engage in inappropriate relationships with them. "We actively pursue any reports of this kind," he says. "We heard about it on a Wednesday, and by Friday, we had our case made and walked him off the facility."

But Gardesani says her ordeal wasn't as swift or painless as the investigation it produced. A native of Brazil who speaks four languages but is less than fluent in English, she admits she was reluctant to come forward at first. She was too shocked, she says -- and then too afraid of what the officer could do to her.

"Sergeant Anderson was such a cop -- go by the book and everything," she says. "People were kind of scared of him because he was mean with inmates. He write you up for anything. I was real surprised this happened, because he was the last person I expect it from."

According to Gardesani, she was reading in her cell one day when Anderson came in and "started running his hands all over me. I couldn't believe what was going on." He then left as abruptly as he'd arrived, she says.

On three subsequent visits over the next few weeks, Gardesani says, Anderson took her to the one area of the room not visible from the cell door, bent her over a chair, and had intercourse with her. "I didn't say a word," she says. "I was thinking, 'If I scream, he's going to tell them I'm crazy, and they're going to put me in the hole, put me in special needs, like happen with other inmates.' So I let him do it. I was almost paralyzed. He didn't say too much. He just pulled me to the chair. Then he had sex with me without no protection at all."

Anderson also summoned her to the shift office for private talks, she says: "He said I have a beautiful body, that I am sexy, he wants to fuck me, things like that." On one occasion, she adds, he unzipped his pants and exposed himself to her, but the arrival of a female lieutenant prompted a hasty zip-up. ("I got up and said, 'Excuse me, thank you very much,' and I just left. She saved me.")

Throughout it all, Gardesani says, she believed any complaint she might make would lead to retaliation. "He told me several times, 'I can't lose my job, so you don't say nothing,'" she says. "But he has the power, right? He can tell things that I done, and I didn't do it, you know what I mean?"

Eventually, though, Gardesani did confide in other female inmates. One was Robin Darbyshire, who'd become active in prisoners'-rights issues after allegedly being forced into a sexual act with a guard employed by a private prisoner-transport company ("Road Hazard," February 14, 2002). With the ACLU's help, Darbyshire had extracted a monetary settlement from the company and now serves on the national advisory board of Stop Prisoner Rape (www.spr.org).

Darbyshire says Anderson had been "flirtatious" with her as well, and had once attempted to expose himself to her. "Most of the male guards here are very respectable," she says, "but there are a few bad apples."

Yet Darbyshire wasn't sure how best to help Gardesani: "She begged me not to tell. I felt so horrible. Here I am, working with Stop Prisoner Rape, and she was saying he was going to do something if I tell. So I was torn. I felt like I let her down."

In late January, another inmate did go to the authorities about Gardesani's situation. Assured by a female lieutenant that she would be protected from Anderson, Gardesani told her story and agreed to meet with an investigator from Inspector General Rulo's office. The investigator was highly skeptical of her account.

"The first thing he said was, 'You need to convince me that what you say is true,'" Gardesani recalls. "When he say that, I get up and say, 'I don't have to convince you of anything. I didn't ask to be here. I want to go back.'"

The investigator soon softened his tone. He had paperwork that indicated Anderson had changed his shift on several occasions so he could work Gardesani's floor, but the situation came down to her word against that of a corrections officer, he explained. To make a solid case, Gardesani would have to get Anderson to admit the encounters on tape.

Gardesani agreed. She was outfitted with the equipment and arranged to meet with Anderson alone in the shift office. "What I was feeling, you can't even imagine," she says. "It was horrible. If he really wants to touch me, he will. But I want to bust him. I want them to take him away from us inmates.

"I went in there and talked to him. I told him he was different with me. I think he was surprised the way I talk to him, because I never talked about what happened between us. I said to him, 'I think you're being cold with me.' I had to come up with some things to tape. I had to mention all the days we had sex.

"He said, 'Please, nobody has to know that.' But he said yes, he remembered this and that. His only worry was losing his job. He speak very, very low."

Shortly after the investigator reviewed the tape, Anderson was escorted off the grounds. He has since resigned. Two weeks ago, he was formally charged with sexual contact in a penal institution by a public employee, a minor felony. Interviews with other inmates produced other cases. Another former Pueblo Minimum Center guard, Alvin Saiz, 48, has been charged in connection with an alleged sexual relationship with another female inmate; in that case, investigators claim to have actual audio and video clips from surveillance of the prisoner's cell.

A third male guard has also left the employment of the DOC as a result of the probe. Rulo says the evidence in that case indicated an "inappropriate" relationship that didn't rise to the level of sexual misconduct. Two others have been transferred. Inmates say the relationships ranged from flirtations to coerced or forced sex acts to favors dispensed in return for money being put in inmates' accounts for canteen purchases.

Rulo points out that a tough "prison love bill" passed by the legislature in 2000 raises the stakes for any sexual contact between DOC staff and inmates, whether it's consensual or not. "Coercion is not an issue," he says. "Any sexual contact at all is a felony."

Anderson and Saiz could not be reached for comment. A DOC audit of the prison triggered by the investigation found numerous complaints among staff and inmates about conduct problems associated chiefly with the graveyard shift, including: "male staff engaged in sex-based comments directed at inmates...male staff allowed female inmates to enter and spend excessive amount of time in shift offices...female inmates not wearing proper attire...staff bring in soft contraband items such as cookies and other food items and share them with inmates...staff sit and listen to the intimate details of inmates' personal lives...inmates seem to know too much personal information about particular staff members."

More than one third of the staff at the women's prison are males. A few other state prison systems have gone to gender-based supervision schemes in the wake of various sexual-misconduct lawsuits and scandals; after a series of assault cases involving teenage girls and adult male guards, Colorado's own Youthful Offender System now uses only female guards to supervise female inmates ("Prisoners of Sex," March 6, 2003). But DOC spokeswoman Alison Morgan says the state adult prison system will continue to rely on appropriate screening and training of staff to minimize the problem.

"We probably have a hundred allegations [of sexual misconduct] a year," Morgan says. "Many times, it's not enough to put someone on leave or terminate them. We tell them we expect a level of professionalism, and it's still frustrating and disappointing when we have staff who fall below that level."

News of the Anderson bust moved quickly through the prison. One guard on the night shift told a group of inmates about Gardesani's undercover work; many disapproved of her wearing a wire and acting as a "snitch," possibly because they had relationships with staff themselves. Gardesani was soon moved to another prison.

"They promised they weren't going to move me from there, but in a way, it was good they did," she says now. She is receiving counseling, seeking help for other medical issues -- and preparing a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections over her treatment at PMC.

Gardesani thinks it would be better if the DOC allowed only female staff to supervise female prisoners. "Things can happen with a woman, too," she says, "but I think the damage is less."

Rulo says that Colorado's vigilance in investigating reports of sexual misconduct has become a model for other prison systems -- but that doesn't make the misconduct go away.

"It's like an ancient philosopher once said," he sighs. "Proximity creates more relationships than destiny ever will."

for related stories visit our "Crime and Punishment" archive.

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