Guard Accused of Inmate Abuse Has Proof Burden

     (CN) – Any sexual relationship between a prison guard and an inmate must be presumed to be nonconsensual, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
     The federal appeals court in Portland revived Eighth Amendment claims against prison guard Sandra de Martin, finding that the unbalanced relationship between guard and inmate shifts the burden of proof to the accused.
     “Just as power inequities between adults and minors, teachers and students, and owners and slaves foster opportunities for sexual abuse, so too does the prisoner-guard relationship,” Judge Betty Fletcher wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
     Idaho inmate Lance Conway Wood claims that he had a “romantic” relationship with Martin in 2002. He says that Martin had a “reputation for being overly friendly with the inmates,” and that they kissed and hugged at times, but did not have sex. Wood says he tried to end things when he heard Martin was married. Martin then began harassing him, once cupping his groin during a pat-down and once grabbing and stroking his penis, Wood claims.
     Wood complained to prison authorities and Martin was eventually transferred to a different facility. Wood then filed a federal civil rights action, alleging various constitutional violations against Martin and prison officials.
     U.S. District Judge William Shubb, in Moscow, Idaho, granted summary judgment to the defendants on Wood’s sexual harassment claims, but allowed the Eighth and Fourth Amendment claims for allegedly “aggressive” and “vindictive” pat searches. A jury later ruled for Martin on those claims.
     Wood appealed his the Eighth Amendment sexual harassment claims, and the 9th Circuit stopped just short of establishing a per se rule on such relationships.
     “The power dynamics between prisoners and guards make it difficult to discern consent from coercion,” Fletcher wrote. “Even if the prisoner concedes that the sexual relationship is ‘voluntary,’ because sex is often traded for favors (more phone privileges or increased contact with children) or ‘luxuries’ (shampoo, gum, cigarettes), it is difficult to characterize sexual relationships in prison as truly the product of free choice.” (Parentheses in original.)
     The panel did not go so far as to say that prisoners are “incapable of legally consenting to sexual relationships with prison officials.”
     “We believe the better approach is a rule that explicitly recognizes the coercive nature of sexual relations in the prison environment,” the ruling states. “Therefore, when a prisoner alleges sexual abuse by a prison guard, we believe the prisoner is entitled to a presumption that the conduct was not consensual. The state then may rebut this presumption by showing that the conduct involved no coercive factors. We need not attempt to exhaustively describe every factor which could be fairly characterized as coercive. Of course, explicit assertions or manifestations of non-consent indicate coercion, but so too may favors, privileges, or any type of exchange for sex. Unless the state carries its burden, the prisoner is deemed to have established the fact of non-consent.”

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