Guard Groping Female Inmate Through Bars of Sexualized Jail Costs $150K

Guard Groping Female Inmate Through Bars of Sexualized Jail Costs $150K
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Otero County Jail inmate Jennifer Hernandez says she was sexually assaulted by a guard through the open bars of her jail cell amid a highly sexualized environment that allowed male corrections officers to routinely see her naked.

These are only two examples of the degradation that inspired Hernandez to file a lawsuit against the guard — Deputy Dominic Torres, who was convicted and served jail time for his actions — as well as then-Otero County sheriff Chris Johnson (he's currently executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado) and several others charged with overseeing her incarceration. And in the wake of receiving a $150,000 settlement in the case, she has decided to speak out under her own name to decry the treatment she received.

"I just feel there are some changes that need to be made within our system," Hernandez says. "You have people out there who make mistakes, and we have to do time for the poor choices we make. But we also have rights, and my rights were violated as a person, a woman, a mother and every other way possible."

Warning: The details that follow may disturb some readers.

According to attorney David Lane, who represented Hernandez, the layout of the Otero County Jail enabled Torres's behavior.

click to enlarge Otero County Jail, at right. - GOOGLE MAPS
Otero County Jail, at right.
Google Maps
"It's a little backwater jail where they have all kinds of issues and problems," Lane says. "They've got virtually no privacy for any inmates. They put all the female inmates into one big cell, and it's an old-fashioned jail, where they have bars defining the cells. They don't have steel doors for privacy, so whenever someone uses the bathroom, anyone walking by can see it. You're constantly having male guards seeing female inmates naked and female guards constantly seeing naked male inmates."

The lawsuit, on view below, maintains that Sheriff Johnson "had a policy of leaving one deputy, regardless of gender, unsupervised, to guard both male and female inmates overnight. Not even the dispatch personnel, who have access to video monitors of the cell area, are able to monitor the deputies’ activities because there are several widely known 'blind spots' in the cameras where deputies can hide with inmates from dispatch."

Moreover, deputies weren't trained in issues surrounding sexual assault, the complaint notes.

This scenario was in place on May 8, 2014, when Hernandez entered Otero County Jail as a pre-trial detainee — and Torres was assigned to the night shift that started at 4 p.m. that day. During Hernandez's time in the facility, women consistently showered after that time, with Torres watching them undress and shower on each occasion, the suit notes.

Other inmates warned Hernandez that Torres tended to get "flirty" with the women at the jail. He allegedly tried to sexualize every encounter, offering contraband to women in trade for sex and committing sexual assault often enough that the lawsuit claims Sheriff Johnson "either had to have known" about his offenses or was "willfully blind."

click to enlarge Former Otero County sheriff Chris Johnson. - TWITTER
Former Otero County sheriff Chris Johnson.
Hernandez was soon subjected to the Torres treatment, the complaint continues. On her first night, he allegedly told her she was pretty and should "flash" him so he could see her breasts. He also asked her to shake and "show him her ass," and while she didn't comply, she was told by male inmates that he'd surreptitiously taken nude photos of her with his cell phone and was displaying them to other prisoners.

Torres later gave Hernandez his phone along with a request that she send him "pictures of her naked or kissing other female inmates," the suit says. While she accepted the phone, she only used it to delete the other naked photos of her on it.

A few days later, Torres exposed his penis to Hernandez and told her to "suck my dick." Again, she refused to go along — but that evening, he took advantage of her while she was under the effect of Seroquel, a prescribed sleep aid. The lawsuit says Hernandez's female cellmate told her that Torres had tried to reach under her blanket while she dozed, but the medication made it impossible for her to stay awake. She soon drifted off again, only to awaken at some point later to find that Torres had reached his hands through the bars and pushed them under the blanket and into her pants.

In the days afterward, Torres threatened to plant contraband that would incriminate the inmates if anyone told superiors about his behavior, which soon included having sex with another female prisoner in exchange for a bag of coffee and a lighter. But Hernandez ignored the threats and told another deputy about what happened, leading to Torres's firing and arrest.

Initially, Torres was charged with two counts of sexual assault and two introduction-of-contraband beefs. That October, he pleaded guilty to new counts of sexual conduct in a correctional institution (the other charges were dropped) and was sentenced to thirty days in jail, four years' worth of probation and 150 hours of useful public service. He was also required to register as a sex offender.

click to enlarge A graphic from the Otero County Sheriff's Office Facebook page. - FACEBOOK
A graphic from the Otero County Sheriff's Office Facebook page.
As for Hernandez, her whistleblowing initially led to retaliation. The suit points out that she was assaulted by a female cellmate, but the deputies at the jail offered her no protection. She overheard one of them, Deputy Linda Hughes (a defendant in the case), say, "I hate this bitch, and hope I find something to charge her with.” Hughes and fellow defendant Deputy Carol Oates then "took Ms. Hernandez’s toilet paper, all of her notes documenting Defendant Torres’ treatment of her and her hairbrush," the complaint allows.

Lane's investigation into the matter revealed how incredibly uninformed Torres was about the laws he was supposed to be following at the jail. "He actually believed that if sexual conduct was perceived by him to be consensual, there was no crime," he says. "That's despite the fact that there's a Colorado statute that says there's no such thing as consensual sex between a prisoner and a guard. And Hernandez was drugged on Seroquel when he assaulted her. It took her a minute or two to figure out what was happening and push him away."

For her part, Hernandez is hopeful that the $150,000 settlement will shine a light on the treatment of female inmates at Otero County Jail and beyond. "I'm still mentally dealing with what happened," she acknowledges. "It's still there in the back of my head, and it's caused a lot of problems and trust issues with me about police. I don't feel I could call a male officer if I'm in danger, because I wouldn't feel safe."

She has two kids, one of them a teenage boy — but she still chose to go public with what happened. "I think it's time for me to sit down and explain certain things to my children," she says. "I shouldn't have to. But I do feel that Otero County should be held responsible for what happened, and hopefully this will send a message. The settlement is just a dent, but maybe by me stepping forward, other girls won't stay quiet if something like this happens to them."

Here's the original lawsuit.

Jennifer Hernandez v. Sheriff Chris Johnson, et. al.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts