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Editor's note: This story includes a description of alleged sexual assault.
A Massachusetts woman who says she was sexually assaulted by a private prison guard transporting her across the country is angry at the plea agreement he struck with prosecutors.
The plea deals with how tight her handcuffs were, not whether he reached under her pants while she was shackled — the original charge he faced.
As WBUR has reported, the woman was in Los Angeles, where she says she went for drug treatment. But by leaving Massachusetts, she violated her probation. Six weeks after arriving in southern California — and despite communicating with her probation officer — she was arrested and turned over to Prisoner Transportation Services (PTS), a company contracted by the Massachusetts Probation Service to bring detainees back here.
On day 12 of the journey, in early 2016, a PTS guard named Jermaine Taylor pulled her aside at a jail stop in southern New Jersey. She was handcuffed at the waist, shackled at the feet, when she says he slipped his hand under her waistband and put his finger into her vagina. Two days later, when she arrived in Massachusetts, the woman immediately told a female officer what happened.
Nearly two years later, Taylor was indicted in Atlantic County, New Jersey, and charged with first-, second- and third-degree sexual assault.
Last week, according to authorities, Taylor pleaded guilty — but to third-degree aggravated assault causing significant bodily injury.
That significant bodily injury: He secured the woman's handcuffs too tightly and that "caused impairment of functions."
The woman — whom WBUR identified only by Smith, her last name — says she's livid. She says she wasn't told about the specifics of the plea from the prosecutor's office, and only learned of them when WBUR told her Monday. What he pleaded to in court isn't what happened, she says.
"I was shocked ... that part of the plea arrangement was that the aggravated assault was blamed on handcuffs being too tight, when he was originally charged with first-, second- and third-degree sexual assault," she said.
Taylor's defense attorney, Lauren Musarra, said the two sides agreed to a three-year suspended sentence with no probation. That means no more jail time — beyond the nearly five months he served after he was arrested — if Taylor stays out of trouble for the next three years.
A spokeswoman for the Atlantic County prosecutor's office would not answer questions about the plea agreement, other than confirming its details.
Musarra said her client pleaded guilty because going to trial was "too much of a risk." Taylor denies that anything sexual occurred during the assault.
"This was a way to avoid having to take any unnecessary risk to his exposure, had he gone to trial," she said.
Musarra said the part about the handcuffs is what both sides "opted to do to make it fit the aggravated assault he'd be pleading to."
Smith says she plans to be there for his sentencing hearing in November.
"If I'm given the opportunity to explain what actually happened, then that's what I'll do," she said.
A 2018 directive from the New Jersey attorney general's office requires prosecutors to consult with sexual assault victims "prior to the conclusion of any plea negotiations."
Survivors don't have to agree to the plea, says Patricia Teffenhart, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, but the intent is to have a "clear, compassionate" conversation, so the victim isn't caught off guard.
“What’s the recourse now for this victim or survivor?" Teffenhart asked Monday. "The plea has been made. The negotiations have been done. And she’s left without any feeling as though there was a sense of justice."
Teffenhart said she's disappointed by the reduction in charges, too.
“To not hold that person accountable for the exact thing that they were alleged to have done — not the too much tightening of the handcuffs, but rather the actual act of sexual assault — is doing a huge disservice for all of us," she said. "This is the best that we can do? I don't think that is true.”
Smith still has a civil suit filed against the transport company, PTS. Its president, Joe Brasfield, and the attorney hired to represent PTS in the civil suit, did not respond to a request for comment.
PTS has been the subject of scrutiny, both by media outlets and lawmakers.
In 2016, the New York Times and the Marshall Project highlighted abuse and neglect on PTS vans. As of May 2019, at least five people had died on PTS extradition vans since 2012, the Marshall Project reported.
Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and two of her congressional colleagues demanded answers from PTS in a letter; it's unclear what Warren and others may do next after receiving a limited response from PTS.
The Massachusetts Probation Service has tapped PTS to move hundreds of adults over the last four years.
A probation spokeswoman said: "Prisoner Transport is required to document its full compliance with all federal and state laws and regulations with regard to delivery of this service."
As of earlier this year, PTS and its subsidiaries had collected more than $1.3 million in the last 10 years from Massachusetts, mostly from the probation and parole departments.
You can reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). You can also visit online.rainn.org to receive support via confidential online chat.
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