Cassandra Collins

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–Today, federal prison doors here will slam shut on a former Florida state prison administrator, Capt. Roosevelt Baker, who is acused of using his position to rape and extort inmates.

Also, today a former prisoner who was once Baker’s victim will exult in an exquisite payback: Using the $200,000 settlement she gained from a civil suit, Cassandra Collins is beginning a statewide bus tour to reach out to other victims of similar assaults and push for changes in Florida laws.

More than five years and numerous court battles after Collins claimed Baker raped her at gunpoint, Baker will begin serving his five-year prison sentence on a sexual assault charge unrelated to his actions with Collins.

Baker, a 25-year veteran of the Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office in rural north Florida, was convicted on federal charges of depriving a female deputy of her civil rights by coercing her into having sex with him. State authorities had fired the deputy who filed the complaint and had allowed Baker to retire.

Collins’s attempts to have Baker criminally prosecuted for her rape in both state and federal courts were not successful, but she was awarded a $200,000-plus judgment when the sheriff’s office settled her civil case last year.

In 1995, Collins was serving a six-month sentence in the county jail for passing bad checks, when, she claimed, Baker raped her at gunpoint.

One Woman Pledges To Protect Others From Rape, Humiliation In Prison

“I’m only one of the women that’s been tortured in the United States by rape in prison, and it should not be tolerated. There are a lot of women and men that’s not as strong as I am to come up, to come forward and to fight the injustice,” Collins said. “I cannot let another woman or man be tortured and humiliated like that in the state of Florida or in the United States.”

Advocates for new laws forbidding sexual abuse in prison say there should be no such thing as “consensual” sex between inmates and those who hold power over them. In three states, Colorado, Missouri and Wyoming, laws allow officers to make just that claim of consensual sex, nullifying any charges of assault.

These advocates add that one consequence of being raped while incarcerated is that it sets the inmate up for further abuse by fellow inmates and corrections officers. Once it’s known an inmate has been raped, he or she is often so humiliated that she or he becomes sexually enslaved or begins performing acts of prostitution in order to survive.

In Collins’s case, her overseer held such power over her that she found herself actually giving him money every week so that he would not force her to have sex with him, she said.

Collins has become the embodiment of prisoner abuse for Amnesty International as it holds news conferences around the country promoting its latest report “Abuse of Women in Custody,” a follow-up to its 1999 report “Not Part of My Sentence: Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody.” Two weeks ago she was in Washington, D.C., then she went to Atlanta.

Bus Trip Promoting Bills to Protect Inmates, Educate Staff

Her personal odyssey, which she is calling “I Heard Your Cry,” will promote two bills now making their way through the Florida Legislature. She’s kicking the trip off with a rally on the Florida Capitol steps Monday, March 19, the day Baker reports to federal prison. The bus will stop in Gainesville, Sanford, Orlando and Miami.

The bills would require sexual violence education of jail and prison staff, would give inmates wider access to protection against rape and make it easier to charge guards with sex crimes.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections noted that the new law being proposed in that state dealt primarily with attempting to bring county jails up to the standards already in place in the state prison system for 20 years.

“All complaints of sexual assault are investigated and forwarded to the Inspector General’s Office,” Jo Ellyn Rackleff said. “Every complaint is investigated and even consensual sex is a third-degree felony for the officer in the prison system. Any substantiated complaint goes to the State Attorney’s Office for prosecution.”

Florida is far from the only state in which women and men are raped and sexually abused in custody. According to Amnesty International’s report on 50 states, the District of Columbia and the federal prison system:

  • Two years ago, 14 states had no law prohibiting sexual relations between inmates and correctional staff. Five states still have no such law (Alabama, Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont and Wisconsin).
  • No state has statutes that meet all of Amnesty International’s six recommendations to ensure full protection of all persons in custody from custodial sexual misconduct.
  • In four states, the statute allows for making the inmate criminally liable for engaging in sexual conduct (Arizona, California, Delaware and Nevada).
  • The statute in seven states and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons system does not penalize custodial sexual misconduct as a felony but considers it a misdemeanor (Arkansas, California, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, North Dakota, Tennessee).
  • Statutes do not cover all forms of sexual abuse in 19 states. The law may not cover threats or oral sex, for example (Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and West Virginia).
  • Only 10 states have a statute that covers all staff and custodians such as vendors, medical and kitchen staff (Arizona, Arkansas, California, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Nevada, North Carolina and Oklahoma).
  • In 21 states, the laws do not cover all correctional facilities and locations (Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia).
  • Also, in the earlier 1999 survey, all 45 states that responded allowed cross-gender pat down searches. In six of these states, such searches are routine (Connecticut, Kansas, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania). Florida, Michigan, South Dakota and the Federal Bureau of Prisons do not allow cross-gender pat down searches today.

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Miami)This is Collins’s fourth attempt to get sexual violence bills passed. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Miami), the sponsor of the House version, says the bill stands a much better chance this year because of all the new House members. She attributed previous years’ failures to other legislators’ attempts to attach unfriendly amendments to the bill.

“I think many elected officials across this nation and most of the people that live in this nation know that this takes place in U.S. correctional institutions and have done little if anything to stop it,” Wilson said.

“So when we come across a victim like Cassandra Collins who is willing to step forward and announce that this happened to her, then I think that we as a country should embrace her.”

The companion bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Mandy Dawson (D-Fort Lauderdale). Collins says she has met with Gov. Jeb Bush and he supports the measure.

Nancy Cook Lauer is a journalist based in Tallahassee and covering state government.

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A special daily feature of Women’s Enews during Women’s History Month.

(WOMENSENEWS)–1964: Rep. Martha Griffiths of Michigan maneuvers in Congressional deliberations about the U.S. Civil Rights Act so that it includes women as a protected class, barring discrimination on the basis of gender as well as race, religion, color and national origin.

Title VII of this act remains the bulwark for non-discrimination in hiring, access to credit, job advancement and other areas covered by the landmark legislation. In 1992, after bitter contention, Congress reauthorized the Civil Rights Act, and moderate Senate Republicans were crucial to the winning compromise. – By Glenda Crank Holste.