FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DENVER-- A woman who was sexually assaulted and threatened with death by a guard during a four-day prisoner transport accepted a settlement in which the guard and the private prisoner transport company that employed him agreed to pay money damages, the American Civil Liberties Union announced today.
Filed on behalf of 43-year-old Robin Darbyshire by the ACLU's National Prison Project, the lawsuit confronts the horror of sexual assault committed by correctional staff and the pitfalls associated with for-profit prisoner transport companies. It was the first of a series of lawsuits filed by the ACLU's National Prison Project as part of its new campaign to end rape and sexual assaults against prisoners.
"The rape and sexual assault of female prisoners is a nation-wide problem," said Craig Cowie, an attorney with the ACLU's National Prison Project and co-counsel in the lawsuit.
"When officials choose to ignore or dismiss a woman's allegations of abuse they send a message that violence against women prisoners is acceptable," Cowie added. "This legal victory serves as a reminder that sexual violence against prisoners is cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of the Constitution."
The settlement ends a lawsuit that arose when Extraditions International, Inc. took custody of Darbyshire in Carson City, Nevada on May 13, 2001 to transport her to a Colorado jail. During the four-day van trip with two male officers and other mostly male prisoners, an Extraditions International guard sexually harassed and threatened to kill Darbyshire and another female prisoner.
The ACLU lawsuit said that the guard eventually sexually assaulted Darbyshire during one of the few van stops where prisoners were permitted to use the restroom. The driver, Richard Almendarez, brought Darbyshire to the bathroom and told her to lie down on the floor facing him. The 325-pound officer, who was armed, ordered her to expose her breasts and lift up her skirt. He then masturbated while standing above her and ejaculated onto her breasts. The officer told Darbyshire that if she screamed he would shoot her and claim that she tried to escape.
A corrections expert investigating the case concluded that the offending officer, Almendarez, had a history of being "callous" in his treatment of prisoner transportees and the company that employed him, Extraditions International, was "deficient" in its operations. "Extraditions International, Inc. hired Almendarez to transport prisoners for its company knowing that the Texas prison system had fired him for assaulting a prisoner there and failing to report it," Cowie said. "Darbyshire's cruel and violent treatment could have been prevented if the company effectively investigated its potential employee."
The lawsuit alleged that the company failed to train or supervise their staff appropriately, allowing the assault to occur. Despite complaints made by Darbyshire during a stop at the Extraditions International office in Commerce City, Colorado, the company placed her back in the van with the driver whom they knew had sexually harassed and threatened to kill her.
Information discovered after the lawsuit was filed revealed that Extraditions International operated illegally by transporting prisoners without proper licensing or insurance, and the ACLU contends, its successor, American Extraditions, continues to do so.
"This case provides an excellent example of why contracting with private for-profit companies to conduct correctional functions can be dangerous to prisoners and the public," said David C. Fathi, a staff attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project and co-counsel in the lawsuit.
Another lawsuit filed against Extraditions International last year alleged similar inhumane and degrading treatment by its employees. In that case, officers left a woman alone overnight in a company holding cell with five male prisoners. The next day when guards returned to release the prisoners, the plaintiff overheard company workers state that they had left her in the cold and vacant warehouse because they did not want to pay to have her confined in a local jail.
The settlement, of an undisclosed amount of damages, resolves the lawsuit, Robin Darbyshire v. Extraditions International, Inc., filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado by Cowie and Fathi of the ACLU's National Prison Project and Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.