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By The Skanner News | The Skanner News
Published: 13 October 2009

WILSONVILLE, Ore. (AP) -- The convictions of three former prison workers and pending lawsuits is leading to criticism that the state is failing to protect women inmates from predatory prison workers.
Three former prison employees have been convicted this year of sexually abusing inmates at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. Another former Coffee Creek employee, accused of sexual misconduct, is scheduled to stand trial in December.
And another employee has been placed on leave pending the outcome of a state police investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.
Five women have filed lawsuits against the Department of Corrections and the state.
The women accuse past and current Coffee Creek employees of sexual assault and battery, and fault the prison system for lax supervision. Collectively, the civil suits seek tens of millions of dollars in damages.
"There is a definite need for change at the facility to make sure that the women are safe. Just because you get thrown into a prison doesn't mean that your constitutional rights get thrown out the window," said Brian Lathen, a Salem attorney representing the five inmates.
State corrections director Max Williams rejected claims that the rash of problems stemmed from lax supervision or a culture of complacency at Coffee Creek.
"No one there at the institution is lax," he said. "I'm not going to bash this management team and its efforts to really run a quality facility based on essentially independent choices by a small handful of staff members who chose to disregard the absolute direct policies of the department.
Coffee Creek has experienced sex scandals before. Several years ago, an ex-convict filed a federal lawsuit alleging she had been sexually abused by two male employees.
In December 2004, the former inmate accepted a $350,000 out-of-court settlement from the state. The settlement came after two employees, one a command-level officer, admitted to having sex with the inmate while on duty. Both employees pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in May 2004.
In 2005, Oregon lawmakers made it a felony crime for a corrections employee or contractor to have sexual intercourse with an inmate.
Oregon's statute does not hold the inmate criminally liable for sexual conduct with a corrections employee. And it makes no allowances for employee claims of consensual sex as a legal defense.
Williams said all Corrections Department employees are fully informed about the law.
"The key point for our staff is to understand that there is no such thing as a consensual relationship with an inmate," he said. "It's impossible because of the differences of authority and position. No matter how much an inmate may be saying they're interested in going forward, they legally can't consent."
Legal problems engulfing the 1,096-inmate women's prison may be growing. Lathen said he intends to file six more civil suits by the end of the year, raising new allegations about sexual abuse at Coffee Creek.
"There are multiple employees we'll be going after," he said.

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