FMC Carswell is the only federal medical facility for incarcerated women in the US, and a dozen women currently or previously imprisoned there have come forward with allegations of rampant sexual abuse and cover-ups. Greater attention has come to the situation after the story of Chantel Dudley, a former inmate at Carswell, came to light. Texas-based reporter Kaley Johnson joins Rattling the Bars to discuss the ‘culture of sexual abuse’ at Carswell.
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Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m your host, Mansa Musa. Chantel Dudley was at FMC Carswell, a federal medical prison for women in Fort Worth, Texas, when a case manager sexually assaulted her multiple times in 2016. What would you do if you were Chantel Dudley? Would you think you have the right to be protected against sexual assault? Or would you expect something like this to happen without any recourse? Here to talk about FMC Carswell is Kayley Johnson, a Texas freelance reporter. Welcome to Rattling the Bars.
Kaley Johnson: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Mansa Musa: Tell our audience a little bit about yourself.
Kaley Johnson: Yeah. I am a Texas-based reporter. Until recently, I was at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for about five years reporting on criminal justice primarily. I spent the last two years looking into issues with federal prisons, specifically jails. Last week I officially left the Star-Telegram to transition into freelance reporting so that I can focus more on criminal justice stories and some of the issues going on in our federal prison system.
Mansa Musa: All right. And while you were with Fort Worth, you wrote a report on what was going on at FMC Carswell. Can you talk about that?
Kaley Johnson: Yeah, of course. I started talking with women at FMC Carswell around 2019 and FMC Carswell is located in Fort Worth. It’s a federal facility and it is a federal medical facility which means that women from across the country are sent to Carswell to receive medical care. It is the only federal medical facility for incarcerated women in the country. So a lot of women from across the states will go there. There are about 1200 people there. I started talking with people initially about the issues with COVID-19 in the facility in 2020. As I was talking to these women about some really scary conditions there with COVID, everyone kept mentioning as well, the allegations of sexual abuse at the facility. I talked with Chantel Dudley, as you mentioned, and she was sexually assaulted in 2016 by her case manager at FMC Carswell.
This was someone who was supposed to be helping her and with her mental health issues and with her transition into Carswell and instead ended up assaulting her. She was released and she really bravely talked with me about what happened to her along with a lot of other women in the facility. I ended up talking to 12 women who were incarcerated at or formerly incarcerated at Carswell about this culture of sexual abuse, and the coverups that they had seen at the facility. A lot of these women said that they experienced sexual abuse or they saw what they thought was abuse going on, and many of them said that it would be reported and nothing would really happen. So that’s what the investigation primarily was about.
Mansa Musa: Okay, so let’s unpack some of what you said. All right. You said that based on your interviews and your interaction with victims and potential victims or people who witnessed, they said this was a culture that had existed in FMC Carswell. How so? When they say it’s a culture, can you explain what they meant by that?
Kaley Johnson: Yeah. Yes. So first there’s data to talk about the pervasiveness of sexual abuse allegations. So FMC Carswell from 2014 to 2018 had 35 reports of women saying they were sexually abused by a staff member which is the most reports of abuse by a staff member of any federal women’s facility during that time period. So there’s a lot of reports going on. Of course, those are allegations but you obviously also have to keep in mind not everyone who goes through something like that in prison is even going to be able to report it. So the actual numbers are probably much higher. That’s the data.
But the culture according to women who were at the facility was that you would face retaliation if you reported abuse. These women are in a place where they don’t have control over almost any aspect of their lives. So a lot of them either felt like or were told – According to the women – That if they reported this abuse, if they told someone about it, they would be retaliated against, they would be put in solitary confinement, or they would have privileges taken away. And that’s a really scary environment to be in.
There was also a woman who worked at the facility as a staff member and she talked to me anonymously because she was still so afraid of retaliation. She said that she witnessed reports being covered up, that she would see something suspicious or see something going on that could constitute sexual assault or abuse, and she brought it to her superior’s attention and nothing would happen. Eventually, she says that she was pushed out of the facility and wrongfully terminated. So there’s something going on there where women feel like they can’t come forward, and then when they do come forward, nothing’s really happening. A lot of the people I’ve talked to even now say this officer is sexually abusing me and other women and we’ve told people about it, or people have been told about him, management, for years and nothing has happened. So that’s the culture of covering this up.
Mansa Musa: I’m listening to what you’re saying and I want our listeners and viewers to be really dialing on this here. One, we’re talking about a medical facility; So we’re talking about a facility where a person is sent there because they have some medical problem, be it physical or mental health. I’m assuming the mental health aspect. But at any rate, they’re vulnerable in that regard. They’re going there to get treatment for their medical conditions. And as a result of going there to be treated, they have in this environment… Now this is the ideal environment for predators, sexual deviants, rapists, people that sodomize people. Because this is what’s been happening to women.
So now you put these officers in this environment. These women, physically they’re vulnerable because they’ve got health issues and now they’re subjected to being sexually assaulted. And if they say something about it, they’re going to be retaliated against in multiple forms: deprived of their medication, deprived of the treatment, and deprived of their mental health. This here lies the culture. But in terms of your investigation and report, did you ever confront the administration with these allegations or try to get their views on the authority, the high-ups, the warden, system warden commissioners, or anybody in the BOP?
Kaley Johnson: For this investigation, I reached out to the Bureau of Prisons through their media liaison multiple times. They never agreed to do an interview with me directly or answer a lot of my specific questions. They sent a statement over email that referred to their policy of taking sexual abuse allegations very seriously and that they have a system in place to make sure those reports go up the ladder and something happens.
And there have been a number of officers, it’s usually higher-up officers or people in a unique position. There was a chaplain at the facility, there was a cook, and then several lieutenants who have been convicted based on sexually abusing someone at Carswell. So there are examples of this person being held accountable but some of the advocates and women I talked to, their criticism of that was that those people had reports being made against them for years. It took a long time for that investigation to happen and there was no broader policy change that was being made to keep it from happening again.
The BOP didn’t really speak to that to me directly, although Director Colette Peters, has talked publicly about how she plans to tackle this issue and she wants to make it a priority. But they never talked with me directly about it. No.
Mansa Musa: You know what? For the benefit of our audience, they have what they call the Prison Rate Reform Act, which is PREA. PREA came into existence because of the pervasiveness of rape in the prison system in the USA. It’s a federal mandate but also state prisons adopted it. And the concept of PREA is that whoever alleges being sexually assaulted or abused or feels like it, can call the PREA number. And once they make that known, the person that they’re alleging did something to them is immediately removed from the institution. The person making the allegation is removed from the institution to prevent retaliation and wants to be put in a safe space and the other one is suspended.
I don’t know, with or without pay, pending an investigation. That’s the idealism of PREA. But from what I’m gathering, PREA doesn’t apply to Carswell because if PREA applied to Carswell, then these women wouldn’t have had the fear of retaliation. But we’re looking at it a little bit deeper. From what you gathered in talking to the women, how did you assess them in terms of how they felt about this whole thing? I know ain’t no good feeling coming out but what were their views on how they looked at it and how they looked at why they were being subjected to this, if they gave you any perspective on that?
Kaley Johnson: Yeah, that’s a good question. And in the story, Chantel talks about this a lot. And a couple of other women I talked to. Wendy Panzo was abused at FCI Dublin, which she had mentioned. And the general feeling that they talked to me about was obviously they are traumatized and this never should have happened to them. Beyond being traumatized as any sexual abuse victim would be, they then had to continue to live in either the exact same facility where this happened or in a very similar facility where they’re still not in control of their lives. They sometimes are not. There’s a story about Carswell with this too, that a lot of them say they didn’t get the mental health resources that they needed after this happened.
That speaks to there’s lack of staffing and resources in general across the BOP. There’s trauma upon trauma for people who are abused in prison. I don’t even think you should need to point this out, but some of them will point out to you, that I did something to lead me to be incarcerated and I was sentenced to give up my time and my freedom. I was not sentenced to be abused and to be emotionally tortured.
Yet that is what happened to them. And the federal government is responsible for these people. A lot of advocates I talked to point out that it is then the federal government’s responsibility to make sure this does not happen and to take any measures necessary to make sure it doesn’t happen again when it does. It’s like Chantel Dudley talked to me about how this has been really hard for her to emotionally recover from because she also doesn’t feel like there was a lot of justice. The case manager in her case was convicted, but I apologize, I don’t remember his exact sentence, but it’s something like 12 months. And there was a woman who after my reporting came out, another man was convicted of sexual abuse at Carswell. His sentence for sexually abusing her was lower than the sentence that she was serving for drug possession. So there’s also a lack of sense of justice and that the federal government cares that this is happening.
Mansa Musa: A point I want to make is that under the sentencing mechanism and the criminal code, you have what you call crime and punishment. The crime, and then you got punishment. If the crime is the distribution of drugs the punishment is then the sentence that I’m given. The sentence that I’m given for the distribution of drugs might be 10 years. Okay. Now I got the crime which was distribution. I was found guilty and received 10 years. At that juncture right there, the punishment is meted out. The punishment is not when I go into the system; The system in turn in the sentencing process is to put me in a position to rehabilitate myself to change my thinking or be prepared for return back in society. So the system’s supposed to create a mechanism for me to engage in that.
Be it, I can go to college, be it, I can get a trade. If I have a substance abuse problem, I can get NA. If I had mental health issues, I could get mental health treatment while I’m there and then progress into society. Nowhere in the system, nowhere in the crime and punishment when the judge sentences anyone, mainly a female, says I’m sentencing you to 10 years to be raped, sodomized, abused, traumatized, and if you survive that, then it’s all good. But if not, so what? And I want to delve a little bit deeper into the response that you got from people in society. What was the response you got from your reporting of this information?
Kaley Johnson: Yeah. There’s a perception that society at large or the public doesn’t care about incarcerated people and what goes on behind bars and that wasn’t what I saw from the response. A lot of people reached out or commented on our Facebook or would talk about the story on Facebook about how unjust this was. That was the response and this should not be happening. Our editorial board ran a piece about how they felt it showed a failure in the federal government to have an appropriate system for people who are incarcerated.
There was also a congressman, Mark Veasey, who called for a federal investigation into FMC Carswell. I don’t think that actually happened but he raised awareness about it and it was something that did seem like a lot of people cared. There are so many advocates who have been working on this issue and specifically surrounding Carswell and people do care. It’s finding solutions and then holding those entities accountable for putting those solutions into place.
Mansa Musa: This is domestic violence for women. We create these ways to identify and educate the populace on things like domestic violence or whatever the case might be around social issues. It seems to me it’s a disconnect between when we talk about domestic violence and when we think domestic violence only applies to people in society. I don’t think society looks at domestic violence as domestic violence. When you take an abuse of the defenseless, that’s basically what you’re doing. When a person comes into the house and beats a woman half to death, that’s domestic violence. When a person is incarcerated and under the jurisdiction and authority of the federal government and goes to get a medical or physical checkup and finds themselves being sodomized, that’s domestic violence. It’s no different.
Do you think it’s a disconnect in that regard? Do you think that in society there is a disconnect between that and the prison when it comes to women and identifying women as being able to be domestically violent? Are women in prison being subjected to be domestically violated?
Kaley Johnson: Yeah. I do think, as you said, that there’s a line that society draws between people who are in society and people who are taken away from it. People who are incarcerated in prisons are not visible to everyone else. They have emailed certain people, and they can make certain phone calls for a certain amount of time, but it’s hard to know what is happening to them. And it’s not like they’re voiceless. They could be screaming that this is happening but it’s not always they’re able to get that out to the public at large.
So I definitely do think it’s something that is not paid enough attention to because people who are incarcerated have a hard time getting people to cure them. I definitely think that when we think of domestic violence, we should broaden our scope of it. And someone being abused in prison, they’re being abused in their home. They can’t… The scary part about domestic violence is it’s something that’s happening to you in your home, that you don’t have an escape from. And that is exactly what’s happening to these women who have cases where they’re being abused by someone who has power and control over them.
Mansa Musa: This is my soapbox and I’m saying this out front: If these women were in Paramount Studio, if these women worked for a major corporation, then the Me Too movement, the feminist movement, ambulance chasers, there’s legal careers that’s on the shelf. Now that they got an opportunity to chase an issue they would be up in arms about this. But when it comes to people who are incarcerated, because they committed a crime, the law says there’s no armed curtain between the Constitution and people who are incarcerated. The law says that a person has a right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment. It might be usual – The domestic aspect of it – But it’s punishment nevertheless and it’s cruel. It might not be unusual in that regard but it’s cruel and it’s punishment and being meeked out on people that are defenseless.
I have issues with why in our society don’t we have a broader perspective on humanity. This is what this is about. This ain’t about a person who committed a crime and isn’t paying their debt to society. You’re paying your debt to society when you get convicted of the crime. The system worked in that regard. If you want to identify how the system worked, a person committed a crime, a person was convicted, and gave them a sentence; that’s the system worker.
But this is where the system breaks down in my mind; is where you are subjecting people to this abuse with impunity. And then we have these organizations in society that they’ll be up in arms about individuals. Oh, they raped this woman and they raped these women. And I’m not trying to minimize that by no stretch of my imagination. I’m saying that attitude is hypocritical in my mind. If you don’t see this as prevalent, it’s the culture of the society to be chauvinistic, sexist, and abusive towards women. Wherever they are, wherever they exist. And when we get up, raise our voices, we should be raising our voices about that. Not about where it happened and why we going to be vocal in this area but not vocal in that area. That’s my soapbox. You have the last word on this, Kaley.
Kaley Johnson: Yeah, yeah. And as you said, I haven’t reported on that specifically or talked to people about that specifically. But I did want to add, I didn’t touch on this earlier, that this is also a dangerous situation for a lot of staff members. The staff member I mentioned that essentially blew the whistle on what was happening with one officer at Carswell was then terminated and she said that she faced retaliation from coworkers. So it’s also a dangerous situation for well-meaning staff who are doing their job and caring for these inmates. Everyone I’ve talked to who’s incarcerated says there’s at least one person that they’re like so-and-so really does care. And to have people who are bad actors in a facility who are not held accountable makes the situation dangerous for everybody.
Mansa Musa: Right. If people want to get in touch with you or stay abreast of what you’re doing, how can they do that?
Kaley Johnson: Yeah, for sure. As I said, I am freelancing now and focusing on the criminal justice system and federal prison system. And you can reach out to me either on Twitter, for as long as it’s still around, @KaleyAJohnson or my email is [email protected], which is also linked in my Twitter if you need the spelling.
Mansa Musa: Thank you, Kaley. You rattled the bars today on this issue. We want to remind our audiences that when we talk about domestic violence, when we talk about abuse, and we choose to identify the violence and abuse that’s taking place in prison, we’re not saying that the people that’s there are innocent; We’re saying that they’re not guilty of subjecting themselves to abuse. We’re saying that nobody that was found guilty of a crime signed up on a piece of paper saying, when I go into the prison system, I want to be sodomized, I want to be raped, I want to be traumatized. Nobody said that. When they went into the system, they went in there with the understanding that if I do certain things that the system asked me to do – That is not getting charged, not getting any infractions, participating in the program services – That ultimately I’ll be released and given the opportunity to return to society a normal human being. Not a traumatized individual.
We want everybody to recognize that. When you think about domestic violence, think about if this is one of your loved ones that we’re talking about. Think about if this was your mother who was found guilty of distribution of narcotics or drugs and was sentenced to prison. And when you talk to her again, she says that she was raped by the medical staff and that she can’t get anybody to believe her or that whenever she complained about it, if she chooses to complain about it, they’re going to further subject her to being punished. Think about that and then ask yourself, would you have a different attitude about supporting these men? These women that are in these federal prisons are being subjected to this cruel and usual punishment as it relates to the federal prison system?
And we ask that you continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News. We ask that you look at this report that we are given. We ask that you vet it for yourself and determine if there’s any truth to it. If the woman says she was sexually abused and raped, if she’s telling the truth, then take a stand in terms of making yourself known. Find out who you can complain to about your tax dollars going to women being raped and abused. Find out who you can complain to that you don’t want your money to go there anymore, that you want your money to go towards treating these people as human beings.
And we ask you to continue to support Rattling the Bars and The Real News because it’s only from the Rattling the Bars and The Real News that you get this report. Because guess what? We are actually the real news. Thank you, Kaley. Thank you for joining me and we appreciate the time that you’re taking to educate our audience on this important matter.
Kaley Johnson: Yeah. Thank you for having me.