The Guardian Shines Light on Sexual Assault Faced by Women Prisoners at Hands of Prison Staff

By Officer Bimblebury – Own work
Via Wikimedia Commons

By Julie McCaffrey and Maeve Haggerty 

CHOWCHILLA, CA —Formerly incarcerated Nilda Palacios sat down with the Guardian this week to tell her story about her experience being sexually assaulted while she was an inmate at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), illustrating the consequences, or lack thereof, Sergeant Tony Ormonde, faced.

It began in 2016 after Palacios needed help securing a room transfer, because her cellmate became abusive and violent.

According to the Guardian, Palacios turned to Ormonde after numerous officers denied her room transfer, who told her, “I can do the bed move, but you gotta do something for me.”

Immediately after her room transfer, Ormonde began making sexually explicit remarks, which escalated to assaults, reports the Guardian. This led to Ormonde coercing her into having weekly sex for six months.

During these assaults Ormonde refused to use protection and would, at times, physically hurt her. Later, when examined by a doctor, she was told by her doctor that she may have contracted a sexually transmitted disease from Ormonde, writes the Guardian.

In her interview with the Guardian, Palacios said she did not report the abuse at that time, because she was “petrified of getting in trouble and jeopardizing (her) freedom. (She) put a mask on and portrayed as if everything was going well. (She) wanted the board to see (she) was ready to come home.”

Additionally, the treatment of the women who did report sexual abuse also deterred her from reporting it. Women who spoke out against sexual abuse were placed in “administrative segregation” and were often accused of rules violations as retaliation. This could lead to their terms being extended, and most of their claims were dismissed, reports the Guardian.

However, the law is on the side of the female inmates who get sexually assaulted. The Guardian writes that legal consent is nonexistent between an officer and incarcerated person—and any sexual contact is considered abuse.

Palacios is well familiar with this concept, as she served as a Prison Rape Elimination Act peer educator. Despite this, the treatment of those who speak out against sexual abuse and her own fear about her freedom deterred her from doing so.

In 2017, Palacios was transferred to another woman’s prison, then released in August of that year. However, Ormande continued to harass Palacios for years after the initial assaults.

Palacios remembers Ormande started calling her as soon as she got a phone, sometimes daily. She contacted CCWF’s Dustin Brown, an internal affairs sergeant responsible for reviewing complaints, four months after being released.

The Guardian reports that it is unclear how Brown responded to that initial report. She eventually contacted him again in November 2019 to report Ormonde’s repetitive and unceasing harassment.

Ormonde was still contacting Palacios in January 2020, despite her changing her phone number to avoid him. Brown was again notified, and the Guardian asserts that, while prison records are unclear in how Brown followed up, Palacios was notified by the investigator that “she did not have enough evidence,” claiming he had hit a dead end and dismissed the case.

According to the Guardian, Palacios said “I felt hurt and betrayed, like I was being pushed aside and judged.”

Ormande’s harassment escalated to contacting her at her place of work. When Palacios began working at a mental health clinic, Ormande called her at work in April 2021 and would not tell her how he found her workplace, according to the Guardian. Palacios stated, “I was scared. He just kept pestering.”

The Guardian reports that at that time, Palacios was seeing a parole department clinician for regular therapy sessions. The therapist was well aware of the abuse, but one day in July 2021, Ormande actually called during one of her therapist appointments.

Ormande described specific sexual acts and sent Palacios unsolicited photos of his genitals, all of which were recorded by her clinician. Her therapist then reported the abuse to a parole agent, and another investigation was opened with the CDCR’s office of internal affairs (OIA).

According to the Guardian, during one of Palacios’ interviews with the OIA, Ormande called, making graphic remarks and asking for them to have sex again. She told the investigators during the interview that “Ormonde is hurting people and… it hurts (me) to have to go through this experience to stop (him).”

Five days later, Ormande was put on paid leave, more than three years after Palacious first reported him.

The Guardian writes that upon learning that he was scheduled for an interview with the CDCR’s OIA, Ormonde told Brown he was planning to resign. According to the Guardian, this is not uncommon and Brown told Ormonde that “(he was) aware of numerous people who have resigned during an investigation, in lieu of termination.”

Ormonde officially resigned after eight months of paid time off, and declined to be interviewed by the OIA.

The investigation was concluded two weeks later, reports the Guardian. Although the allegations were “sustained” by OIA, the office stated that disciplinary actions would not be needed as Ormonde had resigned.

OIA recommended Ormonde to Madera County District Attorney, Sally Moreno, Ormonde be charged with felony sexual abuse. However, the statute of limitations had already passed for that particular charge, and Moreno charged him with “unlawful communication with an inmate,” a charge to which Ormonde pleaded no contest, reports the Guardian.

Palacios was enraged when she learned of Ormonde’s resignation and lack of justice. She told the Guardian, “It’s an injustice, a slap on the wrist. He still got protected, and I’m still sitting here with the scars and the memories of what happened.”

Unfortunately, Palacios is not the only woman to get abused by Ormonde, writes the Guardian. Another woman, who is unnamed in the Guardian article, alleges he abused her from 2017 to 2020, and she was afraid of reporting him because he was her supervisor at her prison job, and she needed her job to sustain herself financially.

She felt obligated to file a grievance, even though she was hesitant in doing so, continues the Guardian, noting she said, “I think about how I can make it easier for the people who come after me so they don’t have to go through this. I want people held accountable—not just the perpetrator, but those who turned a blind eye to this misconduct.”

The Guardian explains that, without a path for justice, these cases continue to occur and the problem remains. 

Madera County DA Sally Moreno, prosecuting another former guard in a similar case, told the Guardian, “In cases like (Palacios), when a victim’s rights get trampled like hers were, there’s no real remedy in the criminal justice system. And when we don’t resolve these things expeditiously, we run the risk every single time that there will be new victims.” 

Furthermore, California’s state treasurer and former state legislator Fiona Ma condemned Ormonde’s ability to resign instead of being terminated. 

“If you threaten a civil servant’s pension and healthcare for life, people with nefarious intent will think twice about breaking the law. But unfortunately too many of them get away with harassing, victimizing and abusing the women they’re supposed to look after. The system should be protecting the victims versus the abusers,” Ma said.

The Guardian wrote, “The California department of corrections and rehabilitation (CDCR) logged more than 1,400 complaints of staff sexual misconduct from 2021 through 2022 across the state.”

This is not the only scandal CDCR and CCWF faced, according to the Guardian. Last year, another CCWF guard was accused of sexually abusing more than 22 women. 

Additionally, the Guardian discussed the difficulty women face in coming forward. “Speaking up was particularly challenging,” Palacios said, because of her history surviving abuse before prison, as is the case with an estimated 60 percent to 80 percent of incarcerated women in the US.

Palacios’ healing is not linear, and she often suffers from panic attacks related to the abuse.

However, she continues to empower other survivors by sharing her story, and finds solace in it. She states, “It’s a seed for me to plant, and that plant grows and connects to other people. And that begins the healing for me.”

About The Author

Julie is a third year at UC Davis majoring in Communications and Psychology with a minor in Philosophy. She hopes to advocate for women's reproductive rights and make the justice system fairer for sexual assault survivors.

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