Women Prisoners Used as ‘Bait’ to Catch a Predator Were Allegedly Sexually Assaulted

The women were told to use a “code phrase” when they felt threatened. But help didn’t come in time.
May 7, 2021, 5:16pm
GettyImages-1210676477

“Can we get some pizza?” 

That was the code phrase in the sting operation to catch a former California correctional officer in the act after he was accused of sexual harassment and assault. 

And two female prisoners at the California Institution for Women in Chino, located in San Bernardino County, were allegedly the bait.

But when they were attacked during the course of the 2017 operation, nobody came to their immediate aid, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the women in a U.S. District Court last week. 

Advertisement

Officers with the investigative and internal affairs units had told one of the women that if she used the code phrase at any point, they’d rush in to her cell to stop the attacking officer, according to the lawsuit. But when the women were both sexually assaulted by the officer one night, despite using the phrase, the officers allegedly didn’t stop the assaults. 

The treatment allegedly violated the women’s civil rights, according to the lawsuit against the alleged assailant, former corrections officer Stephen Merrill, current correctional officer Joseph Spinney, and several other unnamed individuals. 

“This is very egregious given the fact that there was a man in charge of incarcerated women running around and sexually assaulting them,” Jennifer A. Bandlow, an attorney for the two inmates, told the Orange County Register, which first reported the lawsuit. “Then, in order to catch him, they (prison officials) allowed my clients to be again sexually assaulted.”

Merrill was fired from his job with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2018, according to the Orange County Register. That year, he also pleaded no contest to sexual activity by a public employee with a consenting confined adult, the Register reported. 

Advertisement

He could not immediately be reached for comment on the allegations within the lawsuit. 

In August or September of 2017, Merrill would allegedly come and unlock the cell of a woman described only as “Jane Doe 2” a few times a week while working the night shift. He’d bring her food and tell her she was beautiful, according to the lawsuit—allegedly in an effort to groom her.

Then his behavior changed. He allegedly started grabbing his penis when he saw Jane Doe 2, although she’d try to pretend she was asleep to avoid him coming into her cell. 

At one point, Merrill allegedly told Jane Doe 2 to touch his penis. Fearing retaliation or harm, she complied. 

Later, under the weight of what the lawsuit described as “constant sexual harassment,” Jane Doe 2 overdosed on medication so she’d be moved to suicide watch and away from Merrill. 

Then, around October 2017, when officers with the investigative services unit approached Jane Doe 2 to ask about the conduct of a different officer, she shared her allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by Merrill. 

Officers with the investigative services and internal affairs units, including Spinney, “told Jane Doe 2 that she had to be part of a ‘set-up’ to catch Officer Merrill in the act,” according to the lawsuit. She was scared, but officers allegedly told her nothing would happen to her, that there’d be a camera and audio recording device in the room, and that she could say the code phrase if she felt threatened. She was also allegedly told to flirt with Merrill. 

Advertisement

Around this time, after she was removed from suicide watch, Jane Doe 2 was placed in a cell with another woman, identified in the lawsuit only as “Jane Doe 3.” The women, terrified of Merrill, had begun to sleep in the same bed to feel safer. 

One night, Merrill allegedly came into their cell repeatedly. One of the times, he grabbed Jane Doe 3, who didn’t know that Jane Doe 2 had worked with other officers to plant a recording device in the room. 

Merrill digitally penetrated Jane Doe 3’s vagina against her will, according to the lawsuit.

Though Jane Doe 2 used the code phrase “Can we get some pizza?”, no one, including Spinney, came, according to the lawsuit

Then, when Merrill allegedly attempted to push Jane Doe 2’s face down onto his penis and digitally penetrated her vagina, she again stated: “Can we get some pizza?” Still, nobody stopped the assault. (Spinney, when reached by VICE News, said he could not comment on active litigation.)

“Only after both women were sexually assaulted, and digitally penetrated, against their will and without their consent, did ISU and IA come to the room, place plastic bags over both of Officer Merrill’s hands, and remove him,” according to the lawsuit. 

Both women have since sought mental health treatment. 

Any sexual contact between prison staff and inmates—even if consensual—is considered abuse under federal law.

“CDCR has a zero tolerance policy for sexual violence, staff sexual misconduct and sexual harassment in its institutions, community correctional facilities, conservation camps, and for all offenders under its jurisdiction,” a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement. “All sexual violence, staff sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment is strictly prohibited and we support the prosecution of criminal sexual misconduct to the fullest extent of the law.”         

“In the case of Stephen Merrill, as soon as CDCR was made aware of the allegations it opened a thorough investigation and his employment was terminated on April 24, 2018 based on sustained findings of sexual misconduct,” the statement continued. “The case was also referred to the local district attorney’s office, resulting in a two-year sentence.”