The Justice Department announced today that it has opened an investigation of the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ McPherson Unit, the state prison for women in Newport, Arkansas. The investigation will focus on whether women confined at McPherson have been subjected to sexual abuse and sexual harassment by correctional staff. The investigation will also examine the prison’s treatment of transgender prisoners.
The department has received numerous allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment of prisoners by multiple members of McPherson Unit staff. Allegations include staff engaging in sexual intercourse and other sexual acts with prisoners; exchanging commissary money for sexual favors; and inappropriately watching prisoners while they shower or change clothes, commenting on their private parts and, at times, taking photos or video for reasons unrelated to correctional goals.
“Staff sexual abuse of prisoners violates the constitutional rights of prisoners, undermines prison safety and security and can lead to other crimes,” said the head of the Civil Rights Division, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta. “This investigation furthers the Justice Department’s goal of zero-tolerance for sexual abuse and sexual harassment in our nation’s jails and prisons. We hope to work cooperatively with the state of Arkansas in conducting our inquiry and ensuring that prisoners in its custody are not being sexually abused.”
The department has not reached any conclusions regarding the allegations in this matter. As the investigation moves forward, the department will work to determine whether McPherson prisoners are subjected to a pattern or practice of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct in violation of their constitutional rights.
The investigation will be conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA). Under CRIPA, the department is authorized to investigate potential violations of the constitutional rights of prisoners in prisons or jails operated by state or local governments when there appears to be a pattern or practice of such violations. The department has conducted similar investigations in other jurisdictions, and recently entered into settlement agreements that are expected to lead to important reforms following its investigations of staff sexual abuse of women prisoners in Kansas and Alabama.