Former Inmate Can Pursue Prison Rape Case

     RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A former inmate who says prison officials turned a blind eye while an administrator violently raped her can press some, but not all of her claims, a federal judge ruled.
     Nellie Sue Whitt was sentenced to 40 years in prison in February 1994 following her conviction on first-degree murder charges. For most of her incarceration, she was housed at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women, from which she was paroled in October 2013.
     Shortly thereafter, Whitt sued prison administrator Levi T. Yancey Jr., whom she said sexual assaulted her almost every day, and three wardens, who she accused of allowing Yancey to get away with his alleged deed.
     According to the court documents, “Yancey kissed and fondled Whitt, forced her to masturbate him, forced her to provide oral sex to him, bit her nipples until she bruised, and inserted her fingers into her vagina until she cried and bled.”
     Whitt claims that Yancey victimized at least one other woman at VCCW, and that Wendy Hobbs, Tammy Brown and Lisa Hernandez, three co-defendant wardens named in the suit, had a duty to uphold the Prison Rape Elimination Act and to protect prisoners’ Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
     “The absolute disparity in power between staff and women prisoners renders sexual activity between staff and female prisoners inherently coercive,” Whitt wrote in her Aug. 19, 2014 complaint.
     But in May 29 ruling, U.S. District Judge M. Hannah Lauck said some of Whitt’s clams are time-barred by the Statute of Limitations, and that because of this, her claims against Hobbs, who left her job in 2011, must be dismissed.
     “Whitt’s complaint does not outline the timeline of the alleged abuse in a clear fashion, but it appears that such abuse began sometime in 2011 and continued at least until Mother’s Day 2013,”Judge Lauck wrote.
     “While the court may ultimately deem allegations of prior abuse relevant to Whitt’s claims of Eighth Amendment violations after Aug. 19, 2012, that evaluation will occur at a later date on a more fully developed record,” the judge said.
     As to Whitt’s claims against Brown and Hernandez,, Lauck said the former inmate’s lawsuit against them can continue because she successfully alleged she suffered “sufficiently serious” deprivation during her time in prison and that the two wardens acted with a “sufficiently culpable state of mind.”
     “Whitt alleges that Yancey, with increasing frequency and aggression, sexually abused her … Accordingly, Whitt has sufficiently alleged the first element of an Eighth Amendment claim, that her injury was objectively ‘sufficiently serious,'” the judge wrote.
     Further, Lauck wrote, “Whitt … plausibly claims that Brown and Hernandez knew of the facts surrounding her sexual abuse at the hands of Yancey. Whitt alleges that Yancey kept her in his office for three or four hours at a time in violation of prison rules and regulations. … prison officials allowed Yancey to hold Whitt in his office, ‘requiring only hat she stick her hand out.’ … The frequency with which Yancey called her into his office was ‘common knowledge’ at the prison.”
     She added: “Allegations that prison personnel allowed Yancey to keep Whitt in his office in violation of prison regulations, after a report that Yancey had sexually abused another prisoner, survive a motion to dismiss. While scant, such facts, taken as true and with all reasonable inferences in favor of Whitt, plausibly suggest that Brown and Hernandez had knowledge of the facts surrounding Yancey’s conduct … The facts also plausibly indicate that, armed with this knowledge, Brown and Hernandez consciously disregarded the facts by allowing Yancey to keep Whitt in his office for hours at a time contrary to prison rules.”
     Whitt is represented by Terry Neill Grimes of Roanoke, Va.
     Yancey is representing himself and has not returned Courthouse News’ calls for comment.
     Hobbs, Brown and Hernandez are represented by Richmond Attorney General Kate Elizabeth Dwyre to whom Courthouse News has also reached out but received no response.

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