Three survivors of sexual assault in federal prison described years of horrific abuse by prison staffers who used their unfettered access to vulnerable inmates and threatened them with retaliation if they reported the attacks.
All three former inmates, their voices cracking with emotion, told a Senate investigative panel Tuesday that the federal Bureau of Prisons had failed them and often shielded their attackers from accountability.
One of the victims, Linda De La Rosa, told the committee, which has been investigating the sexual abuse of federal inmates for the past eight months, that her attacker had full access to her personal files and used the information to gain leverage over her.
"My life was a living hell," De La Rosa told lawmakers, describing the abuse that started in 2019 and involved at least three other inmates at a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky.
The attacker was later charged and is now serving a 135-month prison sentence, but De La Rosa said the officer had been previously accused of sexual offenses against other inmates when he was stalking and attacking her.
Senate committee Chairman Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., said the investigation also concluded that the Bureau of Prisons system has so far proved incapable of detecting and preventing such attacks.
"This situation is intolerable," Ossoff said. "It is cruel and unusual punishment."
The panel's inquiry is yet another assessment of the agency's systemic failure to ensure the safety of inmates, especially women.
Last week, a former warden of a California federal prison, known as the "rape club," was convicted on eight criminal counts for his abuse of three inmates.
Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters, in an interview this week with USA TODAY, said Justice Department officials are considering the early release of inmates who were victims of the warden and other staffers at the prison.
"I am open to this consideration that is a very complex issue, which is why it’s under pretty significant review,” Peters told USA TODAY. “I think we’re concerned about consistency, I think we’re concerned about fairness, and so I think that each case is unique.”
The testimony of the former inmates, however, represented a powerful condemnation of the agency's past response to such abuse, while the committee reported that the internal investigations unit is plagued by a backlog of 8,000 investigations including hundreds of sexual assault claims.
Peters was appointed as the agency's director in August following years of near-constant turmoil in which staffers' incompetence or misconduct also factored into the 2018 prison murder of mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger and the 2019 suicide of accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
At Tuesday's hearing, Peters said she was "horrified" by the accounts of sexual abuse.
"We must train all bureau employees on their obligation to report misconduct," the director told lawmakers, adding that rogue staffers would be "fettered out" and removed from their positions.
The emotional testimony of the former inmates, however, drew most of the committee's focus.
Briane Moore, a former inmate at a prison in Alderson, West Virginia, tearfully described how a captain raped her multiple times, while threatening to deny her appeals to transfer to a facility closer to family.
"While he was raping me, he was raping other women," Moore said. "I'm still suffering. This has changed the course of my life."
Carolyn Richardson, a former inmate in New York, said an officer preyed on her as she suffered from deteriorating eyesight, often threatening to withhold food and medical care as he forced himself on her.
Richardson said the officer regularly visited her cell a night, shining a flashlight to indicate his arrival.
"I felt utterly powerless," Richardson said.