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Sex Assault Victims In U.S. Prisons May Win Compassionate Release

Aimee Chavira suffered sexual abuse in a Dublin, Cal, federal prison for years by the officers responsible for protecting her. Now, thanks to a program known as compassionate release, she is free. Her freedom could help pave a similar path for other people who experienced physical or sexual assault behind bars. "We are very hopeful that this can lead to more women who were abused at Dublin getting out," said Erica Zunkel, Chavira's lawyer. Compassionate release allows people in prison the chance to convince a court they should be freed because of extraordinary and compelling circumstances. Typically, those cases involve terminal illness or other dire medical conditions but in April, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to expand the bases for compassionate release to include sexual and physical assault by prison workers, NPR reports. While in prison, Chavira reported her abuse to a psychologist and a warden, but no action was taken. The warden later was convicted of sexual abuse and lying to the FBI. Five other officials have been charged with sexually abusing women at the facility, in what became known as a "Rape Club."

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco has been monitoring prosecutions that stem from the abuse at the Dublin prison and she has been trying to stop abuse at other facilities. In testimony to the Sentencing Commission and Congress, and in other public statements, DOJ leaders said they have asked for harsher prison sentences for officers who abuse the people they are supposed to protect. The new director of the Bureau of Prisons says she is reviewing how wardens are selected and supervised and are installing more cameras inside the facilities. For Kevin Ring, who advocates for people in prison and their families, the scandal at the Dublin prison underscores why independent oversight is needed. "You are not going to clean it up through individual investigations," said Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "You have to change the culture and you have to get rid of the concealment and bring some transparency and sunlight into the prison system." Ring is pushing for a bill sponsored by Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Mike Braun (R-IN), that would create an ombudsman for the federal prison system and provide for more inspections of facilities.


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