Federal prosecutors must use "all available tools" to hold federal corrections employees who sexually abuse women in their custody accountable — including a new law that carries a penalty of up to 15 years behind bars, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a new memo to Justice Department officials, NPR reports. "The Department's obligation to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those in our custody is enduring," Monaco wrote. Her directive follows a high-level review this year that uncovered hundreds of complaints about sexual misconduct by Bureau of Prisons employees over the past five years, but only 45 federal prosecutions during that same period.
The working group identified weak or nonexistent administrative discipline against some prison workers — and flaws in how prosecutors assessed reports of abuse. In one case in Florida, authorities declined to prosecute corrections officer Jimmy Highsmith after first receiving tips about him in 2010, only to reverse course years later. In March 2022, a judge sentenced Highsmith to 48 months in prison for repeated sexual misconduct against one incarcerated woman over nine months. The report stressed the need to prevent sexual misconduct in the first place – highlighting recommendations to develop an early warning system by taking notice of officers who routinely show up late after prison rounds; beefing up the presence of security cameras to plug "blind spots" inside prison facilities; and raising pay for wardens who work in 29 prisons for women.