Woman alleges sex assaults in Ashland County Jail
A Northwestern Wisconsin woman is alleging that she was subjected to repeated sexual assaults by a corrections officer while she was in custody at the Ashland County Jail last year.
The 27-year-old woman filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Madison in January, citing a number of alleged violations of privacy and civil rights under the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law.
A 15-page amended complaint, filed Feb. 27, claims that the woman was repeatedly groped and forced to perform sexual acts on a corrections officer during three stints she served in the jail.
The assaults allegedly continued until the corrections officer died of suicide in August 2016, according to the civil complaint filed on the woman's behalf by Ashland attorney Craig Haukaas.
The suit alleges that local and state authorities, made aware of the allegations after the alleged perpetrator's death, failed to provide services required under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act and were "complicit" in having the victim "interrogated as a suspect in a prostitution investigation."
Named in the suit are Ashland County, its sheriff's office, Sheriff Michael Brennan, Jail Administrator Anthony Jones and "other employees of the Ashland County Jail." Also named are three officials with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections: Secretary Jon E. Litscher, Region 6 Chief Eric Losee and field superviser Leeann L. Raab.
A DOC spokesman said the agency was "reviewing the lawsuit." Representatives of the sheriff's office did not respond to a request for comment, but did provide blanket denials of most of the allegations in an answer filed with the court.
The lawsuit alleges that the corrections officer repeatedly made sexually explicit comments toward the inmate and would frequently take her from her cell to areas outside the range of surveillance cameras, forcing her to engage in sexual contact.
The complaint states that incidents also occurred in locations including the booking room, a nurse's station, a sally port and a library closet.
County officials said in their answer that they "deny knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of the allegations," but did acknowledge that they located videos showing the officer escorting the woman into the library closet and a booking room for brief periods of time.
Another video shows the jailer and the woman each reaching through a cell, with the woman touching the officer in the groin area, the county said in its answer.
The lawsuit also alleges privacy violations, claiming that the jail's shower facilities are "visible from the main hub of the jail, which allows visibility from anyone in that location and behind and above it, including other inmates of both the same and opposite sexes."
The suit, alleging violations of the Fourth and Eighth Amendments, claims that the local and state officials acted with "reckless or callous indifference to the Plaintiff's established federal and State of Wisconsin rights."
The complaint criticizes the "insufficiency" of security cameras and training for employees, and says the officials failed to act on the woman's reports or offer her counseling, instead having her investigated by the city of Ashland Police Department.
That inquiry was characterized as a prostitution investigation in the lawsuit, but Ashland Police Chief James Gregoire said it was an independent investigation requested by the Ashland County District Attorney's Office to find the facts of the case.
Under Wisconsin law, inmates at any correctional institution do not have the right to consent to sexual activity.
"The investigation was done to make sure that the inmates were not providing sexual favors for something, like extra meals or in and out early, or talk to a defense attorney, or whatever," he told the Ashland Daily Press.
Gregoire said his main concern was doing a proper investigation of the allegations.
"The outcome you want is to have this thing looked at by a non-involved agency that can look at this with a fresh face and not have any biases, and that's what we did," he told the paper.
Meanwhile, Ashland County Circuit Judge Robert Eaton last week denied a motion to terminate the woman's participation in the Ashland County Drug Court program.
The woman admitted at a Wednesday hearing that she had used methamphetamine within 48 hours of her release from jail. She said she had finally been counseled to seek alternatives to probation revocation, including sexual assault counseling and additional counseling and treatment for her drug addiction.
She testified that she regretted using drugs, saying she is currently subject to electronic monitoring and is also receiving sexual assault counseling.
"It's helping me to stay sober," she said of drug court.
Under cross examination by District Attorney Kelly McKnight, the woman denied that she had had a two-year relationship with the corrections officer before the alleged assaults in the county jail — something McKnight said she told an Ashland Police Department investigator.
McKnight also said at the hearing that the woman had told police that the relationship with the jailer had been consensual and that she had never been forced into sexual activity.
The woman's lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for "physical and mental pain and suffering, mental pain and suffering, mental injury, loss of personal privacy, fear, loss of safety, loss of security, severe emotional distress, anxiety, humiliation, stigma, loss of reputation, inconvenience, attorney's fees, costs, forfeitures and other damages."
An initial pretrial conference was held last week between attorneys and U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Crocker. No future hearing dates or deadlines have been scheduled.