Exclusive: Fort Worth Carswell women’s prison plagued by sexual abuse, cover-ups
- Kaley Johnson
- September 2, 2022
- Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Chantel Dudley may have been released from prison, but she is anything but free. Dudley’s home overlooks the lush, steep hills of the eastern Tennessee countryside. Her hometown, Kingsport, has a busy downtown that presses up against horse pastures and yards with handmade “eggs for sale” signs. On a humid July day, the 32-year-old sits on her couch in a yellow and black sundress and talks about the Fun Fest going on in the city’s center — but she has no plans to attend. In 2018, Dudley — whose default expression is a slight smile — was released from federal prison after a 37-month sentence for a drug conviction. She and her 7-year-old daughter returned to her hometown, where her family lives, in 2022, hoping a support system would help her overcome her debilitating anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.
Dudley was housed at FMC Carswell, a federal medical prison for women in Fort Worth, in 2016 when a case manager sexually assaulted her multiple times. The trauma she faced at the prison has kept her isolated and emotionally imprisoned far beyond the sentence she was given.
“Not one person that had that authority over me helped me or tried to help me, even after what had happened,” Dudley said. “After that, I was scared for women who are incarcerated. Because you have no say-so. You don’t have any rights.” Dudley is not the only person who was sexually abused and traumatized by a staff member at Carswell, a Star-Telegram investigation found. Carswell prison — which is the only federal medical facility for incarcerated women in the country — has been plagued with systemic sexual abuse for years. The Star-Telegram spoke to 12 former and current inmates at the facility, as well as prison staff and experts familiar with the investigative process at the Bureau of Prisons, which has oversight of federal prisons. Hundreds of pages of incident reports, federal records and court documents reveal a pattern of sexual misconduct and cover-ups.
From 2014 to 2018, 35 women at Carswell reported they were sexually assaulted by a staff member — the most of any federal women’s prison, according to a federal report. That’s more than twice the number of incidents at the three prisons — FCC Coleman, FCI Tallahassee and FCI Waseca — that were tied with the second highest number of allegations. Carswell also had the highest rate of allegations when compared based on the prisons’ populations, according to the report’s data. The problem is likely even worse than records show, experts say. Women at Carswell say they are not always able to report sexual assaults due to fear of retaliation. Even when staff members report sexual assaults, Carswell upper management has at times failed to investigate misconduct, the union president at the prison said. One staff member reported a lieutenant was exchanging drugs for sex at the prison — she and the union president say she was retaliated against and fired. The staff member who reported the lieutenant for sexual abuse, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of further retaliation from the Bureau of Prisons, described Carswell as “the perfect place for sexual misconduct.”
A better reporting system for victims, an overhaul within Carswell’s administration and increased accountability from the top leadership of the Bureau of Prisons on down is needed to protect women, experts and staff at the prison say. The Bureau of Prisons declined the Star-Telegram’s interview request about sexual abuse allegations at FMC Carswell. In response to questions about sexual abuse policies, staff misconduct and sexual assault investigations, spokesman Benjamin O’Cone said in an emailed statement that the agency “takes seriously our duty to protect the individuals entrusted in our custody as well as maintain the safety of correctional staff and the community.” Allegations of staff misconduct, O’Cone said, “are referred for investigation if warranted,” and potential criminal activity or misconduct in Bureau of Prisons facilities is “thoroughly investigated for potential administrative discipline or criminal prosecution.”
O’Cone also referred to the Bureau of Prisons’ Program Statement 5324.12 titled “Sexually Abusive Behavior Prevention and Intervention Program” — a written statement that lays out a zero-tolerance policy toward all forms of sexual activity, including abuse and harassment.
Women who are incarcerated across the country may be sent to Carswell for a variety of health or mental health reasons. That’s how Dudley, who had a history of depression and self-harm, ended up at Carswell, a facility of about 1,200 incarcerated people five miles west of downtown Fort Worth. The facility’s 19 buildings are mostly surrounded by Lake Worth and fields, which, this time of year, are filled with brown, dead grass. When she first arrived at Carswell in 2016, Dudley said, she was taken off her medication and she ended up harming herself — she needed 24 stitches. As a result, Dudley was sent to the Special Housing Unit — a solitary unit which the Bureau of Prisons says is used for people’s protection, but is seen as a punishment by most. When she got out, Dudley was moved to the facility’s mental health unit and assigned a case manager and psychologist.
In November 2016, she met with her case manager for the first time to go over her mental health treatment plan. The case manager, Matthew McGaugh, asked Dudley to come to his desk and look at something on his computer, according to Dudley and a lawsuit she filed and settled with McGaugh. When she did, she said, he grabbed her hand and put it on his crotch. She pulled her hand away. “And he told me, ‘You know, I can make your stay at prison hard or easy,’” she said.
Dudley felt trapped. When McGaugh called her back to his office two more times that day, she had no choice but to go — in prison, one cannot decline to go to a manager’s office when called. Both times, McGaugh put a black piece of paper over the door’s window, spread papers across his desk and forced Dudley to masturbate him, Dudley said. During the last of those visits, McGaugh instructed Dudley to meet him in a storage room later that night. Dudley, afraid to disobey, did what he asked. In the storage room, McGaugh forced Dudley to give him oral sex, she said. Afterward, McGaugh told Dudley to spread hand sanitizer on her clothes to wash off his semen, and told her to wash her clothes immediately, she said. Instead, Dudley, in a state of shock, went back to her unit, rolled up her clothes in a ball and sat in the shower. The semen on her clothes would later be used as evidence against McGaugh.
The next day, McGaugh called Dudley to his office yet again. He thanked her and told her she did a good job, Dudley said. Dudley later went to her psychologist’s office and asked for a transfer “because I knew it wouldn’t stop.” She hesitated at first to explain why, but then “just broke down.” She told the psychologist someone had sexually assaulted her, and the special investigative supervisor was called. Dudley had not told the supervisors who assaulted her, but it turned out, she did not need to. The supervisor asked Dudley if McGaugh was her assaulter and told her allegations had been made against him before, Dudley said. In June 2017, McGaugh was arrested and, in July, he pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of a ward. According to court documents, McGaugh admitted to forcing Dudley to engage in multiple sexual acts, including oral sex. McGaugh was sentenced in November 2017. He was given a year in prison. The short sentence — less than half of Dudley’s sentence for conspiracy to distribute drugs — devastated Dudley.
“He took from me any strength that I had when I went in there. He took from me,” said Dudley, whose lawsuit accused McGaugh of cruel and unusual punishment and excessive force. “And I’m fighting to get (my strength) back. And he only got a year in prison.” McGaugh could not be reached for comment. McGaugh’s attorney said he could not provide any information about the case.
In court documents, the Bureau of Prisons said Dudley’s allegations of “rumored wrongdoing” by McGaugh prior to her assault were unproven. ‘SWEEP IT UNDER THE RUG’ Including McGaugh, at least 12 staff members have been convicted of sexual abuse at Carswell prison since 1997, according to court documents and Department of Justice press releases. According to experts, those convictions represent only a fraction of the sexual abuse that has likely occurred because some victims may fear retaliation for reporting abuse. “The majority of sexual abuse is unreported everywhere,” said Julie Abbate, the national advocacy director of Just Detention International, a nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to fighting sexual abuse in prisons. “And that is especially true in custody.”
Reporting sexual assault is “a huge decision to make in any event,” said Abbate, a former Department of Justice attorney who spent 15 years at the Civil Rights Division. “But when you’re naming people who have control over every aspect of your life, the fear of retaliation is very real and is very legitimate.” After Dudley reported her sexual assault, she said, she faced almost immediate retaliation from some staff members and even other women at the prison. Because she reported McGaugh, some officers and women labeled her “a snitch.” Officers called Dudley a liar and said she “got what she asked for,” according to Dudley’s lawsuit, which initially was also filed against the Bureau of Prisons. The agency was dismissed from the suit. When Dudley had scheduled video visits with her family, she said, staff would make her late on purpose so she had less time to talk. Her locker was ransacked regularly. Sometimes, she said, she wasn’t able to sleep because officers would come into the room to do a walk through and kick her bed.
After Dudley’s assault, her mental health worsened. When she self-harmed, she said, she was put into the Special Housing Unit. She requested to transfer prisons multiple times, which Bureau of Prisons policy states should be permitted for victims of sexual violence. But for months, she was kept at Carswell and became increasingly isolated. She says the prison’s priority was not her mental health, but instead officials wanted “to sweep it under the rug.”
“No one took the time to really try to help me after that happened, and I was suffering mentally really bad — really bad,” Dudley said. “I hurt myself since that incident so many times, I can’t tell you how many stitches or staples that I have had to get since that has happened to me. It pushed me over the edge.”
Dudley also said she faced retaliation at the administrative level. In the process of filing an official complaint against Carswell — in which she had to file multiple documents one after another within specific time frames — she was taken from her cell and put on a bus to be transferred without warning. She was not allowed to take her complaint paperwork, meaning she had to start the process over again. This tactic of transferring inmates without allowing them to take paperwork is common enough to have its own name — “diesel therapy,” a reference to the long bus rides that people are forced to take as they move from one prison to the next. The next document Dudley filed in the complaint process was denied because she did not have her other paperwork. Diesel therapy, Dudley’s attorney James Roberts said, not only prevents women like Dudley from collecting all of their documentation, “it just shows them that they have zero control over their life.”
SEXUAL ASSAULT INVESTIGATIONS
The fact that Dudley’s complaint resulted in an investigation and conviction is not the norm at Carswell. Dudley reported her sexual assault in November 2016. Investigators had physical evidence of the assault from the semen on Dudley’s clothes, and McGaugh confessed. That same month, two more reports of sexual assault by a staff member were filed at Carswell, according to records obtained by the Star-Telegram. Unlike Dudley’s, those cases were considered unsubstantiated — meaning investigators were not able to determine whether abuse occurred.
Of 35 reports of alleged sexual assaults at Carswell from 2014 to 2018, according to records, three cases were considered substantiated. According to Bureau of Prisons policy, when a possible crime is reported at a federal prison, the prison itself investigates the allegations first. The facility is required to create and follow a “uniform evidence protocol” to collect evidence. Criminal investigations are then referred to outside agencies, such as the FBI.
Jennifer Howard, the union president of staff at Carswell, told the Star-Telegram in June that the Bureau of Prisons has set up a system in which reports of misconduct are handled “in house, resulting in many reports and complaints going nowhere.” Bureau of Prisons director Michael Carvajal stepped down in January after facing increasing criticism about agency-wide misconduct. A new director, Colette Peters, was appointed in July. Howard said in a statement the union is optimistic about Peters’ “focus on reform and creating an environment where people can feel comfortable coming forward and talking about misconduct.” The Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, aims to better monitor and protect people from sexual assault in federal facilities. As part of those standards, every three years, federal facilities undergo an audit. Auditors certified by the Department of Justice visit facilities, interview staff and those incarcerated at the prison to determine if policies established under PREA are being followed and flag potential abuse problems.
However, the audits do not always work as intended, said Abbate, who was part of the Department of Justice’s group that wrote the policies under the law. For example, auditors only have three days to review a facility, which, she said, is not enough time for a thorough review. Assaults that were never reported won’t show up in an audit. “Even a facility that passes every single PREA standard with flying colors can still have issues with systemic sexual abuse,” Abbate said. “So it’s not a guarantee that abuses won’t happen, but it’s the best way that folks could figure out to minimize the likelihood against sexual abuse and put in safeguards and remedies for when it does happen.” In Carswell’s most recent audit, 14 people incarcerated at the prison reported they were sexually assaulted by a staff member from March 2021 to March 2022. The facility passed every PREA standard.
BUREAU OF PRISONS POLICIES NOT FOLLOWED
Despite the audit’s findings, women at the prison and records of alleged sexual assaults indicate officials do not always follow policies set by the Prison Rape Elimination Act or the Bureau of Prisons. Investigations into sexual assault allegations took years, in some cases, and some ended simply because the accused staff member resigned or took disability leave, according to incident reports. Staff are concerned about lengthy investigations, too, said Howard, president of the officers union at Carswell. Investigations into misconduct can drag on for three to four years, she said, even when someone admits wrongdoing, “putting staff and inmates at risk.”
Other times, investigations do not appear to happen at all, according to women. Another woman at the prison, Dominga Balderas, had been having a medical issue for more than two weeks when she went to one of Carwell’s on-site medical professionals in June 2021. After her X-rays, the doctor called her back to the exam room. But instead of heading into the room, he walked farther down the hallway to a dark office in the back, Balderas said. There, he reclined in a chair and propped his feet up on the desk, Balderas said, and told her to come closer as he patted his leg. She hesitantly walked to the side of the desk and felt his hand go up her exam gown. “There were no cameras, no other inmates,” she said. “He was rubbing his fingers against my body. He almost got to the top where my underwear was.”
Balderas reported the medical professional to the special investigative agent at Carswell, who told her the misconduct would be investigated. But a few weeks later, Balderas was sent back to the same man for a follow-up appointment, she said. Balderas’ bunk mate, Faith Blake, said Balderas was depressed and anxious after the assault — her friend was in pain from her medical issue, but was terrified to see the man again. In March 2022, Balderas was transferred to another facility. As of June, Blake said, the man still worked at the facility. The Bureau of Prisons said it cannot comment on staffing information for security reasons.
LACK OF ACTION DESPITE REPORTS
The man who sexually and physically abused Betzabel Banda-Martinez for four months controlled every aspect of her life at Carswell. He could listen to her phone calls, read her emails and knew where her children attended school. Lt. Luis Curiel took Banda-Martinez into a camera-less room and abused her multiple times a week from June to October 2021, she said. She was afraid to refuse, and she felt she could not tell anyone without him knowing. Curiel threatened to send her to the Special Housing Unit if she did not obey him and threatened her family, Banda-Martinez said. In June or July 2021, Banda-Martinez said, she saw a doctor at Carswell who noticed she had a large bruise — one of the many injuries she said Curiel gave her. The doctor asked her how she got the bruise and told her he reported it to administrators. Around the same time, the staff member who was later fired from the prison also reported Curiel to administrators. The staff member said after she started working at Carswell in January 2021, she noticed suspicious behavior from some of the lieutenants and senior officers at the prison. A woman incarcerated in the prison told the staff member that Curiel was bringing drugs and other contraband into Carswell, and would disappear with women in secluded spots for long periods of time. The staff member reported Curiel to supervisors that summer. Yet, Curiel worked at the facility — and assaulted multiple women — after the reports were filed. The staff member said she never got a response to her initial report about Curiel. In October 2021, Banda-Martinez was pulled into the office of Michael Carr, who was the warden at that time. The prison’s supervising investigative agent and a federal marshal were inside. They started to ask her about Curiel and told her they knew he was abusing her, she said. “They said they had been investigating him, but they didn’t do nothing?” she said. “If they see something happening, they need to do something then and there … They don’t know the suffering and pain we go through.” The same day, Banda-Martinez said, administrators took her to a local hospital to do a rape kit. She was immediately transferred to a prison in Oklahoma and later to FCI Aliceville, a federal facility in Alabama. She was not able to take her belongings, which included a journal where she kept detailed notes about Curiel’s abuse and a pair of underwear covered in blood that she kept as evidence. She said she has tried to file an official report with the Bureau of Prisons about the abuse, but her administrative remedies have gone unanswered. In October 2021, Curiel, 47, was walked off Carswell premises, according to the staff member and four women incarcerated in the prison who messaged the Star-Telegram at the time. Curiel admitted to meeting three women at separate times outside a staff elevator for sexual acts, according to the Department of Justice. In May, Curiel pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual abuse of a ward. The names of the victims are not included in court documents, but one of the women’s initials match Banda-Martinez. Curiel is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 15. Curiel could not be reached for comment. His attorneys did not respond to requests to comment. Despite Curiel’s conviction, Banda-Martinez still feels unsafe and fears for her family. Around March, she said, Curiel sent a message to one of her social media accounts, which her family monitors for her. Banda-Martinez and her attorneys, Scott Palmer and James Roberts, plan to file a federal lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons related to Curiel’s abuse.
To the staff member who reported Curiel, Carswell was her home base — when she was in the military, she was stationed at what was then known as Carswell Air Force Base. In 1994, the base’s six-story hospital was turned into FMC Carswell prison. When the staff member reported Curiel’s abuse, she said, she was harassed, retaliated against and intentionally put into dangerous situations. In one case, she said, a lieutenant intentionally tried to rile up women in the staff member’s unit and “cause the inmates to fight me.” In another instance, a group of senior officers cornered her in the parking lot after work and threatened her, she said. She reported all the retaliation and continued to file reports about other officers’ suspicious activity, but she said her reports were buried. One day, as the staff member walked in the hallway with Curiel and another lieutenant, she said, “an inmate came up out of nowhere and grabbed (Curiel) in a very sexual manner.” Curiel and the other lieutenant did not say anything, and they all kept walking. At that moment, the staff member said, everything became clear — why senior officers came after her in the parking lot and why her reports of misconduct had gone missing. “Whatever they were doing,” she said about the officers participating in misconduct, “they wanted to keep it like that.” The staff member worries about the women incarcerated at the prison, and wonders who will look out for them if officers who report misconduct are punished and fired, like she was. When she reported Curiel, she said, other officers told her she was going to lose her job — they all knew about the unspoken rule to stay silent. “If I had looked the other way,” the staff member said, “I would still have my job.” According to the staff member, the official reason she was given for her termination was unsatisfactory job performance. The staff member said she is appealing her termination under the Whistleblower Protection Act. The retaliation the staff member said she faced is not an isolated incident, according to a whistleblower complaint the union president filed against the prison on behalf of the union. The letter — sent to local political leaders — alleged “corruption, misconduct and malfeasance” were rampant at the prison.
Tackling the systemic misconduct in prisons will take a multi-pronged approach, said Linda McFarlane, the executive director of Just Detention International — which seeks to end sexual abuse in all detention facilities. The culture of covering up misconduct must change alongside policy changes, she said. “We need to strengthen reporting mechanisms, we need to reexamine how staff are trained, hired and promoted, we need to do all that,” she said. “And, at the same time, if we don’t change the culture that allows the abuse to happen, we are not going to end it.” Abbate, Just Detention International’s national advocacy director, said the Bureau of Prisons should be more transparent about sexual assault investigations and reports to let “staff know that they cannot operate in a dark cave and do whatever they want.” The Bureau of Prisons has denied the Star-Telegram’s records requests for the number of assaults reported at the prison between 2019 and June 2022, the number of active staff members who have been accused of assault and the number of sexual assault investigative reports. When Curiel left the prison facility after reports of sexual abuse, the Bureau of Prisons refused to confirm he was under investigation or had been accused of assault. As for Dudley and Banda-Martinez, who were both victims of abuse at FMC Carswell, they continue to deal with the repercussions of a criminal justice system that failed them.
Dudley’s body is covered with scars from self-inflicted injuries, and she sees a psychologist twice a week. She barely has enough money for the appointments, but if she did not have treatment she “probably would have killed myself by now because of this,” she said. “I am isolated behind these walls,” she said about her family’s house. “Do you think the BOP is thinking twice about it? I’m nobody to them. I am nobody and nothing to them.” Banda-Martinez has not seen her kids, who are 12 and 17, since the Bureau of Prisons moved her from FMC Carswell to Alabama in December. Hundreds of miles away and struggling with PTSD, Banda-Martinez feels helpless. Her brother, Ruben Banda, said the family did not even know she had been transferred from Carswell until November. His sister is heartbroken that she cannot see her kids, and she’s “always crying.” “They treat them like they’re animals,” Ruben Banda said. “They treat them like they don’t have any rights in there. Because they don’t.”
If you or a loved one are a victim of sexual assault, you can contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline for confidential support at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat at online.rainn.org.
Originally posted here