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Imprisoned women say male detainees assaulted them after paying to access their cells

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Twenty-eight women are now suing a southern Indiana sheriff and local corrections officers over abuse they say they suffered while imprisoned. The women allege they were raped or assaulted during a, quote, "night of terror" at the Clark County jail last year and that jail officials' failure to protect them violated their constitutional rights. John Boyle with member station WFPL in Louisville has more. And just a warning, some of these details will be disturbing.

JOHN BOYLE, BYLINE: In two federal lawsuits, the plaintiffs claim men who were incarcerated at the jail used keys they bought from a former corrections officer to access areas that housed women. They allege that over the course of several hours, the men raped at least two women and harassed and threatened others. Twenty women entered into the first lawsuit in June. Earlier this week, attorney Steve Wagner filed a separate civil suit on behalf of eight more women.

STEVE WAGNER: In almost all of the cases there, a lot of them are still experiencing nightmares, and they're fearful of authority. And it's really been a very traumatic experience for these women.

BOYLE: David Lowe, the officer accused of selling the keys for $1,000, was arrested in October. He's waiting to be assigned a public defender and has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges against him. His trial will start in the fall. The federal civil lawsuits name him as the defendant, as well as Clark County Sheriff Jamey Noel and unknown jail officers. They accuse Lowe and other officers who were at the jail that night of negligence and inflicting emotional distress for not intervening. Sheriff Noel is listed in his official capacity for failing to adequately maintain safety at the jail and train and supervise the officers. Noel's attorney, Larry Wilder, doesn't dispute that Lowe gave access to the male inmates or that they left their pods.

LARRY WILDER: However, the allegations relative to the night of terror that one of the cases lay out, the evidence is going to be provided, and these things did not happen the way they've been described.

BOYLE: When asked, Wilder wouldn't specify which details of the plaintiffs' account the sheriff's office was disputing. But he said an internal investigation gathered information from other women in the jail that doesn't match up with statements made in the lawsuit. Wagner, the plaintiffs' attorney, calls Wilder's claims absurd. He says there should be extensive footage of the incident from the jail surveillance system.

WAGNER: We believe the evidence, including video evidence, will show male inmates entering the female dorms with coverings on their face to hide their identities. You know, what does the sheriff think those men are going to do when they enter the women's area with their identities, their faces covered?

BOYLE: Wagner says the two lawsuits will likely merge. He expects more information to come out as the legal process moves forward in the coming months.

For NPR News, I'm John Boyle in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Boyle