State prison officials, responding to allegations that there is a culture of sexual assault at the Washington Correctional Center for Women...

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State prison officials, responding to allegations that there is a culture of sexual assault at the Washington Correctional Center for Women in Purdy, pledged Wednesday to improve rape investigations.

Since 2003, the state prison for women near Gig Harbor has investigated at least 41 allegations of sexual misconduct against inmates.

Those investigations, involving 32 correctional officers, have resulted in just a handful of prosecutions, including two recent cases on behalf of women who had the foresight to keep DNA evidence.

“I don’t think it’s a culture of the agency, but there have been more allegations in a short amount of time than I’m comfortable with,” said Eldon Vail, acting secretary of the Department of Corrections (DOC).

Vail said he did not know the scope of the current allegations until a lawsuit was filed in July on behalf of at least four inmates against four DOC staff members. The lawsuit prompted DOC to hire consultants to investigate the complaints, a probe that led to three more staff being accused of misconduct.

All seven are on paid leave. The investigations have recently concluded, but details are being withheld by the agency pending administrative disciplinary hearings, according to DOC.

Vail said the consultants convinced him that the agency needed to more aggressively investigate and prevent sexual misconduct by staff. He said he was urging the Washington State Patrol to take a larger role in investigations.

Use of polygraphs

Among the concerns raised by the DOC consultants is the routine use of polygraph exams on women who allege rape and other sexual misconduct. Polygraphs are rarely used by police during sexual-assault investigations, in part because they have proved unreliable at times.

Vail said he was “not comfortable” with the use of polygraphs, but said he needed to research the issue before deciding if it should be restricted.

“There are occasions where allegations of sexual misconduct are made against staff and they’re unfounded,” said Vail. “My guess is that people assumed they are [unfounded] more often than not. I don’t think that is the case more often than not.”

A Seattle Times review of more than 1,000 pages of investigation reports about staff-on-inmate sexual misconduct at the women’s prison found that several investigations ended without action, even if a polygraph indicated the woman was telling the truth.

Most of those investigations — which involved allegations of illegal ongoing relationships and unsolicited sex — were not referred to law enforcement, according to the records, released Tuesday in response to a public-disclosure request.

On Wednesday, Douglas Cole, superintendent of the women’s prison, said he knew of only one instance since 2006 of a rape-kit examination being performed on an inmate.

The use of polygraphs, as well as alleged retaliation against women who accuse staff, likely deters many inmates from coming forward, said Beth Colgan, a Columbia Legal Services attorney who filed suit in Thurston County in July over the sexual assaults.

One former inmate, who is not being identified because she is an alleged sexual-assault victim, said inmates who came forwarded were regularly transferred to “the hole” — segregation units with restricted privileges.

“All indications are that this is the type of thing that’s been going on for numerous years,” said Colgan. “What we’ve heard from the women is there’s a fear that if they report, they’ll be retaliated against.”

Legal reforms

A high-profile case of a DOC officer impregnating an inmate led the Legislature in 1999 to outlaw any sexual contact between prison staff and inmates. A 2003 federal law also requires the prison system to investigate any such relationship. The DOC has two staff members to investigate such complaints at 15 institutions with more than 15,500 inmates.

The DOC investigative documents suggest that the women’s prison still often receives sexual-misconduct allegations. At times, prison investigators were simultaneously tracking multiple complaints.

Among the allegations at the women’s prison: one inmate who got pregnant by prison staff, several who carried on long-term relationships behind bars that continued after the inmate’s release, and a handful involving rape in corners of the prison not covered by security cameras.

The prison’s kitchen appears to have been a focus of complaints, with at least five cooks being accused.

Among them is former cook Eddie Garbitt, who is awaiting trial on custodial sexual-misconduct charges in Pierce County. In his case, one of his two alleged victims kept her semen-stained underwear after the assault and turned them over to police as evidence.

The only other recent prosecution, against correctional officer Terry Mikelson, also involved DNA evidence. In his case, his alleged victim said Mikelson asked her to come to a property room where there were no surveillance cameras, then raped her.

The woman swabbed herself with a Q-tip and towel, which she turned over to prison investigators. Mikelson was convicted in October and is awaiting sentencing.

“Intimidating” message

At a news conference on Wednesday at the women’s prison, Vail said one way to address the problem of sexual assaults would be to hire more female correctional officers. Less than one-third of the prison’s 178 corrections staff are women.

The DOC consultants also suggested closing the holes in camera surveillance at all three state facilities for women. In the case of the kitchen at the women’s prison, staff were accused of using freezers to have discreet sexual contact with inmates.

Gov. Christine Gregoire’s budget includes $1.2 million for additional cameras, Vail said.

The consultants also identified a problem for those women who do want to come forward. A hotline at the DOC’s headquarters warns inmates that they could be prosecuted for making a false complaint, and requires them to provide their name, DOC number and where they are incarcerated.

“The recorded message clearly discourages anonymous reporting and is somewhat intimidating,” wrote consultant Marianne McNabb.

Vail, a former superintendent at the prison, said DOC was “very sensitive to these allegations.”

“When one of our own crosses the line and does what is alleged here … it’s appalling and disappointing to anyone trying to do good work with offenders,” said Vail.

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or