Two female inmates who were sexually assaulted numerous times while in the Polk County, Wis., jail have been awarded multimillion-dollar settlements.
A jury in a federal lawsuit against corrections officer Darryl L. Christensen decided that each victim should receive $3.75 million in compensatory damages from him.
The jury also awarded $2 million to each woman on grounds that Polk County was negligent and that the county and Christensen violated their civil rights, according to the Feb. 3 finding in federal court in Madison, Wis.
“They went through misery. It was a nightmare for these people, it had a horrible impact on their lives,” said their attorney, Tom Weidner of Stillwater.
Weidner said the two inmates he represented are no longer in custody. They might never see the money from Christensen, he said, but he described the overall award as “adequate compensation” for the ongoing assaults.
Christensen, 50, of Amery, Wis., was sentenced to 30 years in prison in February 2016 after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting five women while on duty in the jail, in some instances dozens of times. Most of the crimes detailed in the criminal complaint took place in 2014, but some dated to 2011.
Married with three children, Christensen was a fire chief in Amery. He had been employed at the Balsam Lake, Wis., jail since 1995. Balsam Lake is about 40 miles northeast of Stillwater.
According to the criminal complaint, Christensen led the inmates into a conference room in the jail where he sexually touched them beneath their clothes and in some cases had intercourse. He ordered two of the women to strip naked in the jail’s maximum security unit as he watched from the “bubble,” meaning the jail’s control booth.
Christensen arranged his assaults when other corrections officers were preoccupied with escorting prisoners to court or other tasks. He closed and locked various jail doors to prevent entry.
Other inmates couldn’t see the assaults because of one-way mirrored glass. The jail’s maximum security unit had no monitoring cameras, according to the complaint.
Court filings show that Christensen’s assaults occurred repeatedly and in some cases outside the jail, and that the women were fearful of reporting what he had done.
He told them he would lose his job and his wife if anyone found out.
The federal suit, a civil action separate from his criminal conviction, contended that jail officials provided inadequate training and supervision.
Had Polk County adopted the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which sets strict standards to prevent sexual assaults, Weidner said, “maybe they could have detected and prevented this.”
The law requires state and federal prisons that receive federal funding to comply with the measure, but Wisconsin hasn’t applied those standards to county jails, he said.
“Polk County knew this was a risk and was deliberately indifferent to that risk,” Weidner said. “There’s nothing that I’m aware of that’s changed, nothing notable that could stop these assaults.”
Sheriff Peter Johnson said Monday he couldn’t comment on making any changes at the jail, because of pending litigation by the other three female inmates Christensen admitted to assaulting.
District Attorney Jeffrey Kemp didn’t respond to an inquiry seeking comment.
“I feel wonderful for my clients,” Weidner said. “They were taken advantage of at their lowest moment when they were in jail, their most vulnerable moment, and it empowered them to speak out. I hope this doesn’t happen again.”