The female inmates expected a guard on a routine check when a door opened at the Clark County jail in Jeffersonville, Ind., late one night last October.
It was the start of what the women would later describe as “a night of terror.” The two male inmates left, only to return with more men who exposed their genitals, yelled obscenities and groped the women, according to the lawsuit.
Two female inmates were raped, the lawsuit claims.
Now, at least 28 women are suing Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel and then-corrections officer David Lowe in a pair of federal lawsuits recently filed in the U.S. District Court of Southern Indiana. In both, the women allege the sheriff and the jail guards working for him violated the women’s civil rights by either intentionally or negligently allowing the male inmates to gain access to their pods and not helping as the men attacked them for more than two hours early on Oct. 24.
“A sheriff at the jail — they have one job, and that’s to keep inmates safe and secure. And it’s just a complete, utter failure that allowed this to happen,” Steve Wagner, a lawyer representing eight women, told The Washington Post. “And so we want answers as to how it happened.”
Larry Wilder, an attorney representing the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, blamed the inmate-on-inmate attack on “the unforeseeable criminal actions of a rogue corrections officer” who abandoned his training and forsook his morals when he gave inmates access to the jail keys.
That corrections officer, Lowe, told The Post he made a mistake that allowed male inmates to steal the keys that gave them access to the female pod. Lowe, 29, claimed it was an accident — the result of being overworked in the weeks leading up to the attack, which he said he learned about only in the days after it happened because he had been working elsewhere in the jail. Lowe, who worked at the sheriff’s office for about a year, claimed he was then “coerced and assaulted into making a false confession” about selling the keys to the inmates.
Lowe, who was fired within days of the attack, has since been charged with felony official misconduct, helping an inmate escape and trafficking with an inmate. He faces up to 9½ years in prison if convicted of all three charges.
Wilder, the attorney representing the sheriff’s office, challenged the female inmates’ claims implicating the agency.
“The Sheriff’s Detective Division has continued to interview female inmates who were present in the pod that evening and these interviews have yielded information that is in direct opposition to the allegations made in the civil lawsuit,” Wilder said in an email. “Further, the investigation seems to indicate that there was a systematic plan by individuals who were incarcerated that evening to develop the narrative that makes up the crux of the claims in the civil case.”
The sheriff, Noel, is “committed to defending those untruths that have been alleged by those who are attempting to reap financial gain from the crimes of David Lowe,” he added.
According to one of the federal lawsuits, which was filed this week, Lowe took $1,000 on Oct. 23 in exchange for giving two male inmates access to keys that would allow them to roam freely through several restricted areas inside the jail. In his interview with The Post, Lowe denied taking any money.
Early the following morning, those two inmates, joined by several other men, roved three pods where women were locked up, the suit alleges. Unable to flee, the women hid under blankets, in the bathroom and in dark corners.
“That was terrifying to them. There’s just nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,” Wagner said.
The men attacked dozens of women, according to the suit. They groped women’s breasts and thighs, exposed themselves and threatened sexual assault.
Several men shoved one of the women, identified in documents as Jane Doe 1, against the side of a locker and pinned her there as they groped her breasts, the lawsuit states. Then, one of them raped her as the others threatened her to keep quiet, the inmates allege. The woman contracted genital herpes as a result of the rape, according to the lawsuit.
Another woman who was raped became pregnant and later miscarried, William McCall, a lawyer representing 20 of the women, told The Post.
Even though the attack went on for more than two hours, no jail guards came to stop it, the suit alleges. Surveillance cameras were positioned in spots that would have captured the men entering the pod and their ensuing attack, but “not a single jail officer on duty that night came to the aid of the Plaintiffs and the other victims,” according to the lawsuit.
“They just kept wondering: ‘When is somebody going to come help us? Isn’t anybody watching on the security cameras? Where are the guards that are supposed to be patrolling the jail?’ ” Wagner told The Post.
After the attack, jail officials punished the women, according to the lawsuit. They allegedly revoked the female inmates’ “dark privileges” by leaving the lights on for 72 hours straight; put the pods on lockdown, which restricted where they could go; and confiscated pillows, blankets and personal hygiene items.
Jail officials also didn’t change the locks to the pod, even though the keys were still missing, the suit alleges.
Wilder, the attorney representing the sheriff’s office, said the jail’s command staff learned of the attack the day after it happened from an inmate’s lawyer. That sparked an investigation that included a review of security footage, as well as interviews of corrections officers and inmates. Officials made immediate changes to “the physical structure” of the jail and reviewed its policies and procedures.
That work continues, Wilder said.
“This investigation is not over and the Sheriff is committed to [ensuring] that nothing of this magnitude or scope [ever] occurs again,” he added.
Nine months after the attack, many of the women are still reeling, Wagner told The Post. They struggle to fall asleep and suffer from flashback nightmares when they do, he said. They don’t feel safe. Those who are still locked up fear another attack.
“They have trouble sleeping at night, wondering, you know, ‘Is somebody going to come through that door? Am I truly safe?’ ” he added.
Wagner said that none of the male inmates have been charged in the attack, something he described as “a continuing insult to the women.” He hopes the legal process allows the women to pry answers from the sheriff’s office about how the attack was possible.
“Did people intentionally look the other way? Were they just not doing their jobs?” Wagner said. “What happened that night to allow this to happen?”