UPTOWN — An Illinois prisoner who was raped behind bars has been awarded nearly a half-million dollars in a settlement announced Friday.
The Illinois Department of Correction has agreed to pay $450,000 to James Fontano after he was allegedly "punished and humiliated by prison officials" after reporting his cellmate had sexually and physically assaulted him, his attorneys said in a prepared statement.
“Men in prison learn quickly there are two things you don’t want to be known for. First, if other prisoners believe you are a snitch, you are in danger of being beaten, stabbed and worse. Second, if you are viewed as a weakling and easy mark to be used for sex by another man, you will always be in danger of a sexual assault,” said Alan Mills, Executive Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, 4413 N. Sheridan Road.
After a minor drug offense, Fontano was imprisoned in the IDOC for eight months, spending most of his sentence in Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln. He was celled with an older, stronger prisoner, who was serving a lengthy sentence for armed robbery, the release said.
In Aug. 2011, shortly before Fontano's release date, the cellmate repeatedly raped him over the course of two nights while they were locked in their shared cell. Fearing the attacks would continue, Fontano reported the incidents in graphic detail to prison officials, who punished Fontano, instead of his attacker, the release said.
"Those are the reasons — fear of being known as a snitch and weakling — James endured two sexual and physical assaults and decided to seek help when he could break away during the third attack," said Mills.
He was forced to spend the rest of his sentence in "segregation," allegedly because he lied about the rape. Officials refused to rescind the punishment even after the cellmate's DNA was found on Fontano's clothes.
Fontano sued the former warden of Logan Correctional Center Alex Dawson and the investigator who recommended the discipline, Kevin Standley, claiming they retaliated against him for exercising his right to report the rape, the statement said.
A federal judge wrote of the case that Fontana's "young age, Caucasian race, slight size, lack of gang affiliation, relative lack of criminal history, and inexperience with the prison setting allegedly made him a prime target for assault by other inmates."
Despite Fontana's vulnerability, he was assigned to a cell with "an imposing 185-pound violent offender and known Gangster Disciple affiliate, who was serving a twenty-year sentence for armed and aggravated battery and had a history of instituting fights within the prison," the judge wrote.
Locke E. Bowman, Executive Director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said that "whether in prison, in the Catholic church, in a school or anywhere else, any person who reports a sexual assault deserves to be treated with concern and respect. Those in charge must investigate the allegations fairly and aggressively. Sexual predators must be brought to justice."
"The response of prison officials to James Fontano in this case is a model of what not to do. Instead of concern, James was met with derision and disbelief. The investigation was designed to cover up the rape, not to hold the perpetrator accountable. We need to ask: Just how prevalent is rape within Illinois' prisons?” Bowman said.
But in a statement, IDOC pointed out that prior to the settlement, Fontano "voluntarily" dismissed allegations that employees failed to protect him from sexual abuse and when it it was settled centered around the retaliation from two former employees.
"The Department takes all sexual abuse allegations seriously. Under Governor Bruce Rauner and Director John Baldwin’s leadership, the Department has taken an aggressive approach to ensure all facilities are compliant with the national standards of the Prison Rape Elimination Act," said Nicole Wilson, a spokeswoman for the IDOC.
New policies have been created and implemented. Medical, mental health and investigative units all received specialized training sessions. And a Prison Rape Elimination Act coordinator has been identified at each facility, Wilson said.
James Fontano v. Godinez was filed in federal court in Springfield and the settlement was announced Friday.
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