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4 crucial steps correctional officers must take after a sexual assault

As sexual assaults inside corrections facilities are unusual and shocking, COs can sometimes forget key parts of their job responsibilities


Most events during our work days are met with our standard processes to manage them, but others can occur that are much more serious and unusual, testing staff responses in difficult ways.


Most of us in the corrections world agree that what happens in a jail or prison is typically not the same day to day and can include anything from an inmate disciplinary hearing, a minor staff injury, missing paperwork in the clinic, or an attorney setting up a client meeting.

Most events during our work days are met with our standard processes to manage them, but others can occur that are much more serious and unusual, testing staff responses in difficult ways.

A sexual assault of any kind is distressing and not a part of the typical correctional officer’s shift. Because such assaults are unusual, but also often quite shocking, officers can sometimes forget key parts of their job responsibilities, and important evidence and steps will be missed.

As a former prosecutor, I’d like to share the most crucial areas of a staff’s response to a sexual assault, and a few tips on how to ensure staff do what you expect.

1. Separate the alleged victim and alleged abuser.

Staff should take the abuser and victim to separate locations with sight and sound separation from each other.

2. Preserve and protect the crime scene.

Sometimes staff may take the victim away from the area upon receiving the allegation but forget they are leaving the abuser or witnesses back on the unit, free to remove evidence.

Immediately secure any crime scene and do not allow anyone inside or touch anything until investigators arrive.

Placing evidence in paper bags can even cause evidence deterioration if correctional officers are not trained in evidence management.

3. Preserve evidence on the victim.

Request the victim not wash, bathe, brush teeth, change clothes, use the bathroom, or eat or drink anything.

Victim responses to assaults vary, but some victims have a desire to wash themselves off because they feel violated. Officers should calmly request the victim not do so, explain why not, and get a mental health counselor as soon as possible to help the victim cope while any sexual assault examination is scheduled.

4. Ensure alleged perpetrator does not destroy physical evidence.

Abusers also may want to wash or change clothes after an allegation, but for a different reason. Officers must supervise these alleged perpetrators and ensure they do not destroy important evidence. Evidence on their person or clothing could be used to either prosecute them or exonerate them if they were falsely accused.

Provide cues for action

One way agencies can assist correctional officers in recalling the steps they should take is to create and distribute laminated cards that fit in a chest pocket or other on-staff memo book or keychain. These cards contain the steps above, in addition to important steps for that particular facility, such as who to notify, documents to fill out and how to ensure the victim gets to medical.

A card with instructions is a great way for staff to ensure each step is completed and to remind him or her who else the officer needs to involve. It is also smart to do an occasional “sexual assault” drill, following the coordinated response plan to ensure all correctional officers know what to do.

Train correctional officers in victim communication techniques

Officers should receive some training in how to talk to a sexual assault victim and what not to do or say. Often, the victim is more likely to cooperate with the medical team and investigators if staff calmly treated him or her with dignity.

It is also important for staff to learn how to handle the incident if they think the victim is lying and was not assaulted. In this case, don’t do anything differently, let the investigators figure it out and just do what you were trained to do and follow policy.

If staff are reminded of the four first-responder steps and follow them, your facility is not only more likely to pass a PREA audit of the first-responder standard 115.64, but any victim in your facility – whether staff or inmate – is more likely to have a case that can be prosecuted in court, ensuring justice for the victim and kudos to your facility for a job well done.

Wendy Leach, JD, is a Senior Consultant with The Moss Group, Inc. and has worked in numerous jurisdictions providing training and assistance in inmate and staff safety, conditions of confinement, PREA compliance, facility operations and system-wide policy revision. She has led multi-member teams in prison and jail assessments around the country, has been a faculty member at the national PREA Auditor Training, and has spoken at various summits and conferences nationally. Prior to joining The Moss Group, Leach was a prosecutor in Baltimore Maryland, managed a federal settlement agreement with the Department of Justice over conditions of confinement in three Maryland detention facilities, and later served as the statewide detention facility Director of Quality Improvement and as a corrections consultant. She is a Department of Justice-certified PREA auditor based in Chicago and a graduate of Albany Law School in Albany, New York.
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