In a highly unusual case, a female correctional officer who worked at the state prison in Sterling has been charged with multiple counts of unlawful sexual contact, after inmates reported being groped by the officer during pat-down searches. And one prisoner who claims to have triggered the investigation says it took months to persuade authorities to take his complaints about inappropriate touching seriously.
"It wasn't anything secret," says inmate Matthew Moss. "The whole yard basically knew about it."
Veronica Garrett, 49, is facing ten counts of sexual conduct in a correctional institution (a felony) and five counts of unlawful sexual contact (a misdemeanor) after an internal investigation by the Office of the Inspector General of the Colorado Department of Corrections. She has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in Logan County in February. Her attorney declined to comment on the case.
The DOC has encountered sexual misconduct issues in the past over its gender-neutral policy of allowing employees to work in prisons housing members of the opposite sex. Most of those problems, though, have involved sexual assaults committed by male officers on female prisoners, who typically fear retaliation if the assaults are reported. Moss's story suggests that male prisoners may face similar problems coming forward with allegations of sexual misconduct by female employees -- and more trouble convincing skeptical higher-ups that the behavior was unwelcome.
In a letter to Westword, Moss states that he decided to take action last spring after comparing notes with a cellmate about the all-too-personal searches conducted by Garrett on prisoners exiting the chow hall. His cellie told Moss about one incident that "went above and beyond what was appropriate. He was actually, for one, offended, two, self-conscious about her giggling, as if he was 'small'...I told him I, too, did not like it, being a Christian, but that it was very normal for her to do that."
The cellie filed a "kite," or grievance, Moss says, but it was ignored. A case manager reportedly defended Garrett's conduct, saying, "We encourage them to ring the bells a lil' bit." But Moss figured that security concerns didn't entitle Garrett to what he calls a "testicle contact license." Although he says he was initially reluctant to report the incidents out of concerns about retaliation, he eventually filed his own complaint under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
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After numerous kites and no responses, he says, "finally I write a letter and give it to a particular night officer, and lo and behold, the investigator is there the next day...a week or so later my case manager comes in and tells me the investigator says I'm not the only one and he's sending it to the Thirteenth Judicial District District Attorney."
Moss realizes that some people might consider the investigation a joke, but he's not laughing. He says he was sexually assaulted four years ago by other prisoners and still struggles with anxiety and flashbacks. "I don't like to be touched, and I'm very self-conscious about it," he writes. "When she basically stroked my stuff during a pat search, what might have been a pleasure for most was an extreme flashback and fear trigger for me."
Garrett is no longer at the Sterling Correctional Facility. Neither is Moss, who's been moved to another prison and is expected to discharge his sentence next fall. He says he's looking for a lawyer. "I am convinced other officers knew of her behavior," he says. "I want DOC to pay for her behavior, acting under color of the state. I want DOC to pay for all those kites that just disappeared."
A DOC spokesperson declined to comment on the case but acknowledged that the charges involve alleged unlawful contact with eight inmates. Have a tip? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.