WASHINGTON — In 2019, Lauren Reynolds took the lonely, terrifying, trailblazing risk of identifying the officer who pressured her for sex when she served at a federal women’s prison in Florida — and quickly found out she was one of at least 10 women who had been abused.
“There’s a lack of accountability, a secrecy, if nobody gets out there and talks about it,” said Ms. Reynolds, whose decision to speak to investigators prompted other women to expose yearslong rampant sexual abuse at Federal Correctional Complex Coleman, another harrowing chapter in an epidemic of assaults against female prisoners at the 160,000-inmate Federal Bureau of Prisons.
A bipartisan Senate investigation is now revealing damning new details about the bureau’s handling of the problem. Buttressed by interviews with dozens of whistle-blowers, current and former prison officials and survivors of sexual abuse, a report set to be released on Tuesday paints a stark and disturbing picture of a crisis that Justice Department officials have identified as a top priority.
Among the findings to be made public by a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee: Bureau employees abused female prisoners in at least 19 of the 29 federal facilities that have held women over the past decade; in at least four prisons, managers failed to apply the federal law intended to detect and reduce sexual assault; and hundreds of sexual abuse charges are among a backlog of 8,000 internal affairs misconduct cases yet to be investigated.
A committee analysis of court filings and prison records over the past decade found that male and female inmates had made 5,415 allegations of sexual abuse against prison employees, of which 586 were later substantiated by investigators.
The plague of sexual assault at the Bureau of Prisons, a Justice Department agency hamstrung by labor shortages, budget shortfalls and mismanagement, had become increasingly evident in recent years. The perpetrators have included male employees at every level of the prison hierarchy: warden, pastor, guard — and the warehouse manager who targeted Ms. Reynolds as she served the final year of a 12-year prison sentence.
The report criticizes the department’s leadership for failing to bring charges against many of those accused of abusing inmates at the now-shuttered women’s unit at Coleman, in rural Central Florida. It also takes to task the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, assigned to review abuse allegations, for declining to investigate six male officers at Coleman accused of abusing prisoners.
All six officers “already had admitted to sexually abusing female prisoners under their supervision,” the report’s authors wrote. “None of these six officers was ever prosecuted.”
Under federal law, any sexual contact between a prison employee and a prisoner is illegal, even if it would be considered consensual outside the system. Guards at Coleman, when confronted with evidence that they had sex with female inmates, admitted they were worried about being charged with a crime in affidavits to be made public by the subcommittee on Tuesday.
In May 2021, the federal government paid 15 women who had served at Coleman at least $1.25 million to settle a case cited extensively in the report. That included Ms. Reynolds, who got a college degree after leaving prison and now works for a construction company.
“If you sweep it under the rug, nothing will change,” she said.
Investigators identified three other prisons as sites where abusers were allowed to target female inmates with relative impunity: the Metropolitan Correctional Center and Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn, both in New York, and Federal Correctional Institution Dublin, near Oakland, Calif.
A former warden at Dublin, Ray Garcia, was found guilty of seven charges of sexual abuse this month after molesting female inmates and forcing them to pose for nude photographs.
As of May, 17 current or former employees at Dublin were under investigation for sexual abuse, including the prison’s former pastor.
The situation at Dublin, which prompted Senator Jon Ossoff, the Georgia Democrat who leads the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, to embark on his panel’s broader investigation last spring, has also spurred the Justice Department to consider an overhaul of its policies governing compassionate release orders for inmates who have been abused.
In September, Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco wrote a letter to the prisoners’ rights group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, saying that she had ordered the bureau’s new director, Colette S. Peters, to “review whether B.O.P.’s policy regarding compassionate release should be modified” to accommodate female prisoners who had been assaulted by federal employees.