Federal Prison Guards Confessed to Rape and Got Away With It "I knew they were scumbags," a former Bureau of Prisons officer tells Reason


Three years ago, Reason reported on a federal lawsuit filed by women abused at Coleman. The lawsuit claimed that prison leadership created a “sanctuary” for a cadre of serial rapists employed by the U.S. government.

“The sexual abuse at these female prisons is rampant but goes largely unchecked as a result of cultural tolerance, orchestrated cover-ups and organizational reprisals of inmates who dare to complain or report sexual abuse,” the suit said.

Berman’s daughter was one of the plaintiffs in that suit. Carleane Berman arrived at Coleman’s minimum security work camp for women in March 2017 to serve a 30-month sentence for her role in a Miami crime ring that imported huge amounts of the club drug molly, or MDMA, from China.

She had started using drugs as a teenager. Despite increasingly severe interventions from her parents, it just got worse. She ran away for days at a time, getting lost in Miami Beach’s all-night clubs. “I was caught up in the typical nightlife scene that fueled my addiction,” she would later tell the Miami Herald.

That was how she met Jorge Hernandez, a charismatic, tattooed military veteran who recruited several young women, including Berman, to wire money and pick up packages of molly. Everyone got busted after an irate girlfriend ratted out Hernandez’s business partner to the police.

Berman’s sentence didn’t look so bad on paper. As federal prison goes, two and a half years at a minimum security camp is about as good as it gets. You live in dormitory-style housing; you have access to jobs and programs; your movement isn’t as restricted; there’s plenty of fresh air.

At Coleman, Berman was on the landscaping crew, where she worked with Miranda Williams, who also arrived at Coleman that year. The two quickly became the sort of ride-or-die friends you only make when you’re thrown together in bad circumstances.

Williams says Berman was a fun, bubbly person, a bit wild, quick to help others without expecting anything in return. She used to take the four-wheelers they used for landscaping and run them through mud puddles when it was raining.

Before long, Williams and Berman started hearing rumors.

“Inmates would basically warn me that if I see anything, hear anything, something happens with me, then not to speak, don’t tell, don’t say anything, don’t ask questions, because I’m gonna end up in a worse situation than what I was already in,” Williams says. “And at the time I didn’t know what that meant, so I just kept my mouth closed.”

Williams says she was first raped by a correctional officer in mid-June 2017. It started with one officer, but then there was another, and then another.

“The harassment quickly evolved into sexual assault as Officers [Christopher] Palomares, [Keith] Vann and [Timothy] Phillips coerced, intimated and demanded that Ms. Berman engage in all types of sexual activities with each of them including oral sex, intercourse, and group sex with Ms. Flowers,” their eventual lawsuit said. (Williams’ last name was formerly Flowers.)

“It happened as frequently as they wanted it to,” Williams says.

As far as the Justice Department and federal law are concerned, there is no such thing as consensual sex between a correctional officer and an incarcerated person. It is sexual assault—always.

Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003. It was supposed to create zero-tolerance policies for sexual abuse in U.S. prisons and jails. PREA is mostly toothless, though—and in the federal prison system, festering corruption made it a bad joke. In December 2022, the former warden of a federal women’s prison in California was convicted of sexually abusing incarcerated women. He was also the prison’s PREA compliance officer.

“I was incarcerated for almost eight years, and I saw it at pretty much every single institution I was at,” Kara Guggino, a former Coleman inmate and a plaintiff in the eventual lawsuit, told Reason in 2019. “I was at maybe six different places, and this was going on everywhere. But it was by far the worst at Coleman.”

‘Multiple Admitted Sexual Abusers Were Not Criminally Prosecuted’

When Berman first reached out to Reason, the lawsuit was over and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had stonewalled every attempt to uncover more information about how these guards had been allowed to run rampant for years.

The Miami Herald tried requesting personnel files on all of the named officers to see if they had a history of complaints and misconduct. “The Bureau of Prisons responded that absent an ‘overriding public interest,’ it would not provide such documents, calling the provision of such records ‘an unwarranted invasion of their personal privacy,’” the newspaper reported.

Berman filed a records request for internal affairs interviews with the correctional officers, but was likewise denied.

Reason filed a records request for the interviews, internal affairs memos, and emailsbetween some of the correctional officers named in the lawsuit. The BOP rejected all those requests.

What really happened at Coleman might have been obscured forever, but there was one group the BOP couldn’t ignore: Congress.

Last December, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) released the results of a 10-month investigation into sexual abuse of incarcerated women in the federal prison system.

The report found that the Bureau of Prisons has failed to implement PREA and that long delays in investigating complaints created a backlog of more than 8,000 internal affairs cases. The report concluded that these failures “allowed serious, repeated sexual abuse in at least four facilities to go undetected,” including Coleman.

“BOP’s internal affairs practices have failed to hold employees accountable, and multiple admitted sexual abusers were not criminally prosecuted as a result,” the report said.

Overall, the investigation found that BOP employees sexually abused female inmates in at least two-thirds of federal women’s prisons over the last decade.

Senate investigators also obtained what Berman, the Miami Herald, and Reason could never get our hands on: “copies of non-public sworn, compelled statements from officers at FCC Coleman, wherein the officers admitted to sexual abuse of female detainees in graphic detail.”