Rebecca was not alone. Officer Padilla harassed and assaulted several other women at Springer Correctional Center (SCC) in Springer, New México, whom he supervised, emboldened by the belief that he would never face consequences for his actions. Unsurprisingly, when Rebecca finally worked up the courage to report Officer Padilla, prison staff retaliated against her.
Even after several other women reported his abusive behavior, management did not discipline Officer Padilla. In fact, shortly before Rebecca reported his abuse, Officer Padilla was promoted to a position of even greater power and access to the women at SCC, one which he held for almost three years after numerous women reported his inappropriate, abusive, and illegal behavior.
Three years after the first women courageously came forward, Officer Padilla was finally fired when his sexual assault of yet another woman came to light. For three years, Rebecca and Officer Padilla’s other victims had to live with the knowledge that Officer Padilla was roaming SCC emboldened and enabled by SCC leadership to continue abusing women. While Rebecca was transferred to another facility, many of Officer Padilla’s victims were unable to escape their abuser, who retained utter control over their lives.
It is well established under federal law that sexual abuse of incarcerated individuals is illegal and constitutes cruel and usual punishment. Thankfully, Officer Padilla finally faced consequences for his abuse, but he was not the only one responsible for what happened to his victims.
When Rebecca sued to vindicate her constitutional right to be free from abuse at the hands of state employees in federal court, she also named two of Officer Padilla’s supervisors and the SCC warden. SCC leadership were responsible for creating a culture of abuse at the prison by ignoring, dismissing, and mishandling allegations of sexual abuse and by retaliating against those courageous enough to report such abuse. Rebecca sought to hold them accountable for failing their constitutional, legal, and moral duty to protect her from violence and abuse. She hoped that doing so might prevent others from suffering the kind of trauma that she suffered.
For too long, qualified immunity has shielded bad actors from liability and prevented survivors of abuse from seeking justice.
Instead, the supervisory defendants were dismissed from Rebecca’s lawsuit after successfully arguing that they were protected by qualified immunity. This judge-made doctrine, invented by the United States Supreme Court in the late 1960’s, allows public officials who abuse their power to escape consequences so long as they did not violate “clearly established law.” This standard has been interpreted by federal courts to mean that public officials can’t be held accountable for violating someone’s rights unless in a previous lawsuit, with nearly identical facts, a similarly-accused defendant was found guilty of violating the same rights.
For too long, qualified immunity has shielded bad actors from liability and prevented survivors of abuse from seeking justice. But we can change that.
Lalita Moskowitz is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.
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