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California Jail Accused of Permitting Sexual Abuse Against Inmates 'for Years'

A new lawsuit alleges that the sheriff had knowledge of repeated assaults on female inmates by correctional officers and allowed the abuse to continue.
May 17, 2016, 7:25pm
Photo by Good Vibrations Images via Stocksy

A California woman seeks damages against a county jail for allegedly allowing its correctional officers to sexually torment female inmates. According to court documents, the woman, Carole Crane, claims that the sheriff at the Butte County jail had knowledge of the ongoing abuse by officers but failed to take preventative or corrective action.

Crane's complaint stems back to 2014, when she was serving a one-month sentence at the jail. "While at the jail," the complaint reads, "[she] was subjected to repeated, intentional sexual assaults by Butte County correctional officer Timothy Hill. Hill's conduct placed [her] in a constant state of fear as to whether there would be any limits as to what he would do." According to the complaint, Hill assaulted Crane starting from the moment she was booked.

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"While being booked into the Butte County Jail, [Crane] fell asleep in the booking area and was awoken by Hill, who escorted her to a holding cell still in the booking area. Once she was in the holding cell, plaintiff again fell asleep," the complaint recounts. "She was again awoken by Hill, who had fully exposed his erect penis and was holding it near [her] face. Hill ordered [Crane] to touch his penis. [She] recoiled from him. Hill ordered [her] not to move any further because of security cameras in the area. Hill left and, after several minutes had passed, returned to the cell. Hill took [her] hand and placed it on his erect penis. [She] again pulled away from him. Hill then left the area."

Two weeks later, Crane claims she was assaulted again in the attorney–client visitation room, after Hill falsely told her that she had a visitor:

Hill came back into the attorney-client visit room and began to assault [Crane] by placing his hands all over her body. Hill placed his hands underneath [her] jail-issued jumpsuit and grabbed and fondled her breasts. Although [she] tried to maneuver so as to prevent Hill from accessing her vagina, she was unsuccessful and Hill used his finger or fingers to penetrate her vagina. Several times while Hill was assaulting [her] in this manner, he suddenly left the room as if he were afraid of getting caught and then returned shortly thereafter. Upon re-entering the room each time, Hill resumed his assaults on [her]. To [Crane], this course of conduct seemed to go on forever.

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Crane eventually reported the horrific string of sexual assaults before she was released, and Hill resigned once the allegations were made public. Hill was also accused of exposing himself to several other female inmates. In June 2015, almost a year after the alleged assaults took place, Hill was criminally charged with indecent exposure, sexual activity with a detainee in a detention facility, and sexual battery. But the cased ended up not being the victory Crane was hoping for.

In September of that year, Hill admitted to exposing himself to Crane but denied touching her inappropriately. Hill then took a plea deal, according to court documents, confessing to "sexual activity with a detainee in a detention facility," a misdemeanor that implies Hill's alleged behavior toward Crane was consensual. The maximum sentence for the charge was a mere six months in jail. Not only was Hill's sentence a miscarriage of justice, Crane's civil rights complaint alleges, but it was one abetted by Butte County's sheriff, Kory Honea, who still oversees the jail. Crane and her attorneys claim that "the Butte County District Attorney, acting at the behest of Sheriff Honea, permitted Hill to plead guilty to this misdemeanor charge in an attempt to minimize his criminal liability, and, correspondingly, to attempt to minimize the civil liability of the sheriff's department for Hill's conduct."

And while a press release from the Butte County jail at the time claimed that the sheriff's office only knew about Hill's conduct with female inmates once Crane came forward in 2014, the new civil rights complaint alleges that the sheriff was made aware of the sexual assaults as far back as 2013. "Prior to Hill's sexual assaults against plaintiff, Sheriff Honea had actual notice of Hill's ongoing misconduct of sexual harassment and sexual assaults committed on Butte County jail inmates in his care and custody, but took no action, resulting in the constitutional violations alleged herein being suffered by plaintiff." The complaint goes on to describe how, while Honea was serving as the jail's undersheriff in August 2013, "multiple other jail inmates complained of sexual harassment and sexual assaults by Hill."

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"The Butte County Inmate Advocate notified Sheriff Honea personally and directly of these prior complaints," the complaint continues. "On information and belief, Sheriff Honea spoke directly to one or more of the inmate complainants as well as the Inmate Advocate. Despite having actual knowledge of Hill's pattern of sexually assaulting inmates, Sheriff Honea took no action to address the ongoing constitutional violations."

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea via buttecounty.net

The complaint implies that other staff members also knew about the ongoing abuse but does not name them. "The conduct was so pervasive that it is inconceivable that supervisors did not know that the misconduct was occurring," it reads. "The failure of the supervisors to take preventative or corrective action shows their acquiescence or deliberate indifference to the ongoing criminal exploitation of the women entrusted to their care.

"Had Sheriff Honea taken appropriate steps in response to the 2013 complaints against Hill, none of the conduct alleged herein would have occurred," the complaint claims. Crane is seeking compensatory and punitive damages against the defendants, Timothy Hill and Kory Honea.

On many fronts, the state of California has been struggling with protecting inmates in jail. According to the ACLU, female inmates in California jails live in generally substandard conditions, specifically when it comes to accommodating their reproductive health. Earlier this year, the Butte County jail came under fire for attempting to pay for an infrastructure expansion using money that was supposed to be allocated for inmate welfare. It took petitions from the ACLU and other advocates to make sure that money—which consists of the money inmates pay for the commissary and to make phone calls, and is supposed to go back to the inmates in the form of benefits like gym equipment—actually goes back to the inmates.

Sexual assault in California jails is also a rampant problem. The federal government passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003, which puts minimum safety standards and protocols in place for handling the sexual assault of prisoners, but it isn't enforced unilaterally on the local level. In 2013, Democratic Senator Ricardo Lara authored a bill to bring California law in line with PREA standards, though according to Steven Meinrath, who works with the ACLU of California's Center for Advocacy and Policy, it got held up in the appropriations committee. "In 2016, jails in California still do not meet [the] standards [set by PREA]," he said in an email. "It is high time the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC), the agency responsible for setting minimum standards in our jails, take responsibility for enforcing those requirements."

Crane's lawyers were not immediately available for comment. Sheriff Honea did not respond to a request for comment.

Update: When reached for comment, a spokesperson from the Butte County Sheriff's office said, "the general policy of the County is to not comment on pending litigation."