A federal jury awarded $1 million to two former Florida inmates who were repeatedly sexually assaulted by a correctional officer while in custody at Bay County Jail in Panama City in 2013. On Monday evening, the jury found that the inmates’ treatment while under the protection of the Bay County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) constituted cruel and unusual punishment and required the sheriff’s office to pay the large damages.
The jury found that other jail staff, including warden Rick Anglin, had known for months that one of their officers posed a threat to female inmates. Anglin’s failure to act on the threat caused the rape of the two women, jurors concluded in a document released with their decision in favor of the plaintiffs.
“This was a big win,” said Luis Baptiste, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the two women. “What makes Monday’s verdict so important for us is that our clients’ voices got heard.”
Jail officer Pedro Reyes raped four women while they worked under his supervision in the laundry area, according to a 2013 BCSO investigation. Reyes would take inmates to secluded closets and ask them for sexual favors, the women told investigators. Several said they felt threatened, so they complied.
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Reyes would parade his victims past security cameras, and an officers’ station on the way to the closet where he assaulted them. “The officer at one point told Reyes, ‘have a good time,’ ” as he walked past the station, said Baptiste. Reyes’ pursuits were so infamous that his peers began to call female inmates he targeted “Reyes’ girls,” according to the lawsuit.
Reyes was fired and later charged with sexual misconduct after the investigation in November 2013 concluded that he had sexually assaulted the four inmates. He admitted to the acts, was convicted and sentenced to five years of probation. Because of good behavior, he served only half.
“He got probation and community service for rape,” Baptiste said.
Baptiste said Reyes should have been charged with sexual battery — the charge for rape, rather than acts deemed consensual between a corrections officer and inmate (an act that is legally still considered non-consensual, but of a lesser degree). The sexual battery charge didn’t stick because of a botched BCSO investigative report, Baptiste said. The report stated the women consented to the acts, despite transcripts of their testimonies in which they said they were scared or threatened.
A sexual battery charge would have landed Reyes in prison, Baptiste said. Instead, Reyes was free to walk around the small town and would see the women he abused at local stores after their release. “He would smile at them,” Baptiste said.
Two would later file the lawsuit against both Reyes and the sheriff’s office, indignant that Reyes received only probation.
Their successful lawsuit parallels a second similar suit filed against BSCO in February 2017 that is pending in the 14th Judicial Circuit Court., according to reporting by the Panama City New Herald.
BCSO Sheriff Tommy Ford said in a statement that he understood the jury’s decision in favor of the two inmates and called Reyes’ criminal behavior “unacceptable” but also said he thought the BSCO and Anglin acted appropriately. He said in the statement: “This will never be tolerated at the Bay County Jail, and strict procedures are in place to prevent it from occurring again.”
A BCSO spokesperson told the Miami Herald that the office plans to appeal the ruling.