The multiple sexual assaults and intimidation of former inmate Cara Tangreti in 2013 and 2014, which resulted in the firing of four correctional officers and the arrest of three, is regarded as one of the most egregious cases of misconduct at the York Correctional Institute in East Lyme, even for a place from which dozens of complaints of sexual abuse have emanated over the years.
Now, the 33-year-old Tangreti’s multimillion-dollar federal civil rights lawsuit is poised for trial. U.S. District Judge Michael P. Shea on Friday denied the state’s motion for dismissal on several key fronts, allowing her case to advance to trial against all eight supervisory personnel who are named as defendants, from former Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple, down to wardens, a supervisory counselor and ranking correctional officers.
Shea’s ruling comes at a juncture in which the DOC is also facing a series of medical malfeasance and wrongful death cases and has itself identified 25 instances of medical care gone awry, including eight inmate deaths. The string of cases includes one brought by another inmate at York, the state’s only prison for women, who was forced to give birth in her cell.
“Cara was addicted to opiates and wrote bad checks against her stepfather’s account. She was in a minimum security drug treatment program, trying to get help. For that, she received what amounts to a life sentence,” said her lawyer, Antonio Ponvert III. “Post-traumatic stress syndrome doesn’t go away.”
Tangreti, convicted of third-degree larceny, had received a two-year sentence. She ended up serving nine months.
The circumstances around Tangreti’s case are remarkable in that an internal Department of Correction inquiry has already “substantiated” wrongdoing on the part of prison personnel. Her complaint is augmented by the firings and arrests of the officers and the further acknowledgement by the department that the lack of surveillance cameras in the minimum-security building where Tangreti, a first-time inmate, was housed was a possible violation of the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, known as PREA.
“In this case, the sexual abuse of Ms. Tangreti was both severe and repetitive,” Shea wrote in a 52-page ruling, adding that Tangreti had established “at the very least, a reasonable inference that these sexual incidents were assaultive and non-consensual.”
Ponvert said he’s prepared to argue to a jury that beyond the pain and terror Tangreti suffered during the attacks in the basement, laundry room, shower stalls and other “blind spots” of the Davis building, there is no such thing as consensual sex between an inmate and a correctional officer, particularly a female inmate.
“You don’t normally say no to a correctional officer,” Tangreti was quoted as saying in a sworn deposition. “I felt like I was obligated to do it. They tell you what to do, and if you don’t do it, you get in trouble.“
“I didn’t say ‘no,’ I was scared of what he was doing,” Tangreti said at another point in the deposition. “I mean, what am I going to do? This man who has got power over me.
“It was extremely painful what he was doing. … I didn’t want to participate in it.”
Ponvert said that Semple, in a deposition, acknowledged that what had occurred was sexual assault.