Why More Prison Staff Convicted of Sexual Abuse Aren’t Behind Bars

The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo explains why it’s so hard to find justice for inmates who are sexually abused in prison.

By Luke Quinton and Matti HautalaJune 17, 2015 4:41 pm|

Texas leads the nation in prison sex abuse. Not just prisoners abusing other inmates, but prison staff demanding sex from the people they’re supposed to be protecting.

Sexual contact between prison staff and inmates is a felony in the United States, but very few staff are punished for abusing inmates. In fact, of the 400 cases of prison staff sex crimes referred to prosecutors since 2000, Texas prosecutors didn’t pursue half of those. Of the 126 prison workers who were convicted of sexual abuse, only nine did any time behind bars. But prosecutors might not be fully to blame for the lack of convictions.

These numbers come from a new report by Alysia Santo of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit investigative news organization that covers the criminal justice system.

Santo says that part of the reason there are so few convictions is because collecting evidence behind bars can be hard. “It’s extremely difficult to prove sex crimes that occur in prison,” Santo says. “Prosecutors are definitely up against a challenge there.”

When abuse cases make it to court with little or no evidence, it becomes a question of the prison staff’s word against the word of an inmate. And Santo says juries have a tough time believing prisoners. “Inmates don’t hold much credibility to juries. And often juries — who are from the towns where the prison is often the number one employer — don’t have a lot of sympathy for these inmates who are claiming they were abused or manipulated.”

Santo says even when there’s solid evidence that sexual abuse took place, juries are still hesitant to sentence prison staff to time behind bars. “What you have are prosecutors that are bringing cases when they do have evidence, but what they’ve told me is that they’re up against a jury that doesn’t think jail time is appropriate.” As a result, jail time is rarely pursued.

So if they’re not comfortable with imprisonment, how are juries punishing guards who are tried for sexual abuse of an inmate?

“The outcome most of the time is a type of probation called deferred adjudication,” Santo says. “The person pleads guilty, they get a probationary sentence of a couple of years, and if they complete those core conditions… they’ll actually have a clean criminal record.”

The Clements Unit in Amarillo has more reports of sexual abuse than any other all-male prison in the country. In fact, male inmates are more likely than female inmates to be sexually abused by prison staff. Just this Tuesday a female staff at the Brown County jail was arrested for providing drugs and sex to a male inmate.

How does the power differential between guards and inmates play into so many male inmates being abused? Santo gives one example of a nurse, Domenic Hidalgo, using his power to demand sex. “[Hidalgo] was approaching an inmate at the Clements Unit for sexual favors, and he was attempting to solicit that using his access to prescription drugs in the facility,” says Santo. “So he was offering drugs in exchange for sex.”

Santo says that it’s quite common in these cases for guards to offer access to contraband for sexual favors. Hidalgo got caught because there was recorded audio of the actual propositioning and exchange. The audio was hard proof that the nurse at the Clements Unit had committed multiple felonies.

“[Hidalgo] ended up pleading guilty like most of them do — almost all of these cases are plea deals,” Santo says. “He was facing ten years behind bars, but instead he received a $500 fine and 4 years on probation.”

If Hidalgo completes his probation without any problems, he’ll have no criminal record come 2017.

Santo says that such a light sentencing is unheard of in sexual abuse cases with other groups — like children and the mentally ill — who cannot legally give sexual consent.

“If someone was offering a young child or a disabled person — which are also protected by laws that say they cannot consent to sex — I don’t know if you’d be seeing the same outcome.”