An inmate at the Fox Lake Correctional Institution in Wisconsin has filed federal civil rights charges against the state and several corrections officials after he was repeatedly sexually assaulted. While jail assaults unfortunately do occur, this case is unique because the assailant, a former sergeant employed by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, went to prison for the assaults.
Last week the sergeant, Alex Wouts of Poy Sippi, Wisconsin, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for sexual assault. Prosecutors sought a 120 year sentence. Wouts went from being a corrections officer to an inmate.
The Dodge County District Attorney’s Office called Wouts a serial rapist. According to court records, he had multiple victims.
Wouts Charged with Sexual Assault of an Inmate
According to the federal complaint, John* was an inmate housed in Wisconsin’s medium security correctional facility in Fox Lake. [Although John’s real name does appear in court records, we do not publish names of victims of sexual assaults.]
In early 2015, John was transferred to a different housing unit within the prison. Alex Wouts was a duty sergeant within that unit. The complaint says that during a nine month period, John was raped by Wouts once or twice a week. He says he was assaulted on at least 50 separate occasions.
The assaults took place in the laundry room, basement and a bathroom within the prison.
John claims he had no choice but to submit to the repeated assaults. If he didn’t, Wouts threatened to add time to his sentence and block his release to a minimum security boot camp.
Normally we are careful to use the word “allegedly” when accusing officers of serious crimes such as sexual assault and rape. In this case, Wouts was convicted by a state court jury in May of five counts of sexual assault on an inmate. He also did not deny or even answer the federal complaint meaning he is in default. Under the circumstances, we certainly believe John’s version of events.
John’s Civil Lawsuit for Damages
For the public and other inmates there is some justice knowing that Wouts will spend much of his life in prison for his horrible crimes. Former corrections officers don’t fare well in prison. We suspect that most of Wouts time will be in administrative segregation (solitary confinement) for his own safety. Because he is so at risk, he will likely spend most of his day inside his cell and won’t be able to work within the general inmate population.
Although justice was served by Wouts conviction, his conviction doesn’t undo the damage and hurt suffered by John. He will likely suffer shame, anxiety and depression for life.
John decided to seek his own legal justice and did something few inmates do. Last year after Wouts was arrested, John obtained counsel and sued Wouts. As noted, Wouts didn’t even bother denying the charges and is likely penniless.
So how will John collect if Sgt. Wouts is now in jail?
John also named the state, the warden, the prison’s director security and Wouts supervisor in his lawsuit. We believe all bear responsibility for Wouts’ heinous crimes.
Nothing can undo the nine months of horror suffered by John. But a civil jury can award monetary damages and hold the appropriate parties responsible for his suffering.
John named Randall Hepp, warden of the Fox Lake Correctional Institution. As warden, Hepp bears the ultimate responsibility for the safety of all inmates within the facility.
He also sued Mark Schomisch, the prison’s safety director. Like the warden, Schomisch is responsible for the safety of both staff and inmates. He is also responsible to insure corrections officers are properly trained.
John sued Brian Schuler, Wouts supervisor. Under Wisconsin and federal law, supervisors can be held legally accountable for the actions of their subordinates if it can be shown that they failed to properly train or supervise.
Finally, John sued the state itself.
John claims that the assaults took place mostly at night. If he refused to participate, Wouts would threaten to place him in solitary confinement or lose his ability to get into minimum security boot camp.
The state and remaining defendants have not yet answered the charges in federal court.
Sexual Assaults by Prison Guards Rarely Prosecuted
The US Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics published a survey in 2014. It found that correctional administrators reported 8,763 sexual assault allegations in 2011. A shocking 49% of those sexual misconduct allegations involved staff assaults or abuse of inmates.
Approximately 10% of the allegations were substantiated.
As we already know from the FBI and state investigations of Wisconsin’s Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake facilities, very few sexual assaults are ever even reported. Inmates may report to staff but the facility itself simply sweeps the claims under the carpet.
In the case of staff assaults on inmates, we suspect even fewer are reported. Guards have almost unlimited power over inmates. In some instances, they have life or death power. Through a combination of carrot and stick, a few bad apples sometimes misuse their power to rape or molest inmates.
The carrot is a promise of better treatment, extra privileges or even transfer to a better facility. The stick can be anything from solitary confinement to lockdown to be placed in a cell with a known dangerous inmate.
Because of the huge power disparity between inmates and officers, most states say that consent is not a defense to sexual assaults committed by prison staff. That means even if you go along with the sexual demands, the law still views the sexual act as an assault.
What does all this mean? It means what happened to John at Fox Lake isn’t an isolated incident. These violent assaults take place daily across the United States. And too often they go unreported. [We are already investigating assaults at two Wisconsin facilities including Fox Lake.]
According to a ProPublica story about the Bureau of Justice findings, “‘These findings point to a level of impunity in our prisons and jails that is simply unacceptable,’ said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International, a prisoner advocacy group in California. ‘When corrections agencies don’t punish or choose to ignore sexual abuse committed by staff members— people who are paid by our tax dollars to keep inmates safe— they support criminal behavior.’”
That same perception that prisons do not take prison sexual assaults seriously may be why so few assaults get reported. Inmates are afraid to report because they know the retribution from the guards can be fast and potentially fatal.
A recent NY Post story claims that a woman who finally stepped forward and reported being raped by a guard was then raped by the person to whom she reported the assault. Stories like these don’t help reporting statistics.
How to Fight Back Sexual Abuse by Prison Staff and Win
If you or a loved one is the victim of a sexual assault by prison or jail staff, know that you are not alone.
If you feel comfortable reporting the incident to a trusted official, then do so. If not, or if no action is taken, consider getting a lawyer involved. Once private counsel is involved, most guards know their actions are going to be viewed under a microscope. Having a lawyer involved often prevents retribution.
A lawyer can help make sure that the appropriate outside authorities are alerted and that your claims are investigated properly.
Criminally prosecuting jail staff can only be done by the local district attorney, the state attorney general and the US Department of Justice. The feds have jurisdiction because prison rapes, no matter where they occur, deprive the victim of his or her civil rights.
Whether or not the assailant is criminally prosecuted, you may also be entitled to monetary damages. Federal and state laws allow inmates deprived of their Constitutional rights and injured because of a sexual assault to claim damages for such things as pain and suffering, emotional distress and if medical complications occur, future monitoring or treatment upon release.
For more information, visit our prison inmate abuse information page. Have specific questions or want to know if you have a case for monetary damages? Contact us online, by email [hidden email] or by phone at 866.836.4684.
[The fine print: Cases handled nationwide directly by us or with one of our partner lawyers. We never charge a fee unless we first collect money on your behalf. All inquiries are protected by the attorney client privilege and kept strictly confidential. We cannot accept collect calls and only take cases where serious bodily injury, death or a sexual assault by staff took place.]