Former Oregon women's prison nurse faces federal charges for assaulting inmates
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
To Oregon now, where a former women's state prison nurse faces multiple counts of alleged sexual abuse. He's accused of abusing incarcerated women. Complaints about the nurse spanned years, but local and state authorities declined to prosecute. And now, the U.S. Justice Department has taken on the case. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports. And just a warning, the story contains descriptions of sexual assault.
CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Tony Klein worked as a nurse at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility for more than 7 years. It's Oregon's only prison for women. In 2019, several women filed civil lawsuits alleging Klein sexually assaulted them. Their attorney, Michelle Burrows, questioned Klein for hours about the allegations during a deposition.
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MICHELLE BURROWS: There are 18 women who have made accusations against you for sexual touching or comments. Are each one of these women telling the truth, as far as you know?
TONY KLEIN: No, they're not telling the truth.
BURROWS: They're not? They're all lying?
WILSON: Since Klein gave that deposition more than two years ago, the number of women who've made allegations against him has grown to at least 27; the Oregon Department of Corrections confirmed. State police, the Washington County District Attorney's Office, and, later, the State Nursing Board all investigated. But Klein kept his license and was not charged. And for the women, that's the problem. The case illustrates the difficulty for prisoners to be believed by authorities.
LISA WHIPPLE: They're not going to say, she has every right to push me away; I tried to touch her vagina.
WILSON: That's Lisa Whipple. During a 2019 deposition, she described being sexually assaulted by Klein during medical appointments at the Coffee Creek Prison. Whipple says she didn't report Klein because she was afraid it would add time to her prison sentence.
WHIPPLE: That doesn't happen. It all gets put on the inmate because we're inmates, and we're felons, and people don't believe the sh** that we say (crying).
WILSON: The prison is in Washington County, just outside Portland. Rayney Meisel is a local prosecutor there. She did not review Whipple's case, but she did review an investigation by state police into allegations against Klein made by other women.
RAYNEY MEISEL: And the takeaway is that are these women perfect victims? Yes, because even if it happens, no one believes them.
WILSON: Meisel noted a lack of DNA evidence, inconsistencies in some of the women's statements. Police had heard claims that Klein was being set up. He resigned from the Oregon Department of Corrections in 2018. Months later, Meisel's office decided not to charge Klein.
MEISEL: I have concerns that this did not happen in the way that all of the women said that it happened.
WILSON: Federal prosecutors believed otherwise. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed a 25-count indictment that charged Klein with sexually abusing 12 women at Oregon's Coffee Creek prison. Klein has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors say he violated the women's constitutional rights - in this case, the right to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.
JULIE ABBATE: Federal government has a huge interest in making sure that the states don't violate people's constitutional rights.
WILSON: Julie Abbate is a former deputy chief with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. She says on investigations like Klein's, it's common for the Justice Department to first look to local law enforcement for charges.
ABBATE: Is the state doing anything? Do they have it? If so, back off. But if not, if they botch it or they ignore it, that's when the feds get to step in.
WILSON: A jury trial is scheduled for May 17. Some of Klein's accusers are expected to testify. Lisa Whipple will be following the case. She was released from prison and now works as a drug and alcohol counselor. Whipple says she's still angry about the abuse.
WHIPPLE: Taking women in that situation and creating more trauma for women that have already experienced, you know, some of the most horrific things is baffling, and I relate, you know, to a whole lot of them.
WILSON: Whipple says being incarcerated is the punishment and being safe inside isn't a privilege. It's a basic human right that, for too many, is broken.
For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.