A Texas woman is suing the Virginia Department of Corrections, demanding damages for her suffering when a contract employee at the Fluvanna Correctional Center sexually harassed and assaulted her. The state admits it happened, but claims it has no responsibility. Sandy Hausman has details.
Michelle Cooper was locked up at the Fluvanna Correctional Center after she was convicted of embezzlement. During her years behind bars, she was sexually harassed and sodomized by a contract employee at the prison. At the time, lawyer Jeff Fogel says the Department of Corrections required complaints be made within 30 days of an attack, but it took Cooper 45 days to overcome fear and report the assault.
“She was afraid of retaliation," he explains. " She was afraid they wouldn’t believe her, but she did tell an institutional investigator about it. As a result of that they conducted an investigation, and ultimately determined that what she was saying was true.”
The state fired the contractor but because 30 days had passed, it took no responsibility for the assault on Cooper. Then, the law changed.
“The Congress passed a statute called the prison rape elimination act, in an effort to do something about the widespread sexual assault on prisoners,” Fogel recalls.
That law got rid of the time requirement, so Cooper went back to court, asking for damages. A judge ruled in the state’s favor, saying that the old time-limit was in effect when the assault occurred. Fogel says his client is now appealing that decision.
“What is the moral obligation of the state, and most particularly the Department of Corrections, when they conclude someone in their custody has been raped?" he asks. "The obligation is not to defend a lawsuit with every technicality that you can. They should be ashamed of themselves.”
Virginia’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the plaintiff in a similar case.