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Editor's note: This story includes a description of alleged sexual assault.
A guard working for a private prison transport company who was accused of raping a Massachusetts woman is unlikely to spend any additional time in jail after pleading guilty to a lesser charge — not that he sexually assaulted her, but that he put her handcuffs on too tight.
The woman at the center of the case, who WBUR only identified by her last name, Smith, because she said she is a victim of sexual assault, was livid at the plea and sentence given to Jermaine Taylor on Friday.
"Today, Mr. Taylor is being awarded the opportunity to move forward with little to no consequences in relation to what we both know occurred in that van," she said during her victim impact statement, turning to look directly at Taylor. "I, however, will have to carry the burden and memory of this event forever."
Taylor worked for Prisoner Transportation Services, the company Massachusetts Probation Service hired to forcibly move Smith from southern California back to Massachusetts in 2016 after she violated probation by leaving the state to attend drug rehabilitation. On day 12 of the 14-day journey inside the back of a cramped van, the guards made a jail stop in New Jersey. The woman said Taylor reached under her pants and sexually assaulted her.
Taylor, who is 44 and lives in Kentucky, was charged with first-, second- and third-degree sexual assault. But in a plea deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty only to third-degree aggravated assault causing significant bodily injury — a charge for securing the woman's handcuffs too tightly causing "impairment of functions."
Taylor's defense attorney, Lauren Musarra, said previously that Taylor denies any sexual contact occurred, and that he pleaded guilty to the lesser charge to avoid the risks associated with a trial.
In court Friday, Taylor said he was told during his PTS guard training that all jail drop-off areas had cameras recording the guards movements and, "recording devices would have our back."
"I did not make any type of sexual contact with [the victim] and that's all I have to say," he told the judge.
Taylor and his attorneys declined to comment after the sentencing.
Atlantic County Judge Donna Taylor handed down the sentence agreed to in August by prosecutors and defense attorneys — a three-year suspended sentence with no probation. That means no more jail time — beyond the nearly five months Taylor served after he was arrested — if he stays out of trouble for the next three years.
Judge Taylor thanked Smith for her courage in coming forward, but noted she was constrained to the plea agreement.
Smith's anger rests partly with the prosecutor's office, who she says didn't inform her of the specifics of the plea.
Assistant Prosecutor Erika Halayko acknowledged Smith's frustration, telling the judge, "Sometimes our system is a system of imperfect justice."
"Make no mistake," she continued. "The state believes that this defendant sexually assaulted the victim on the PTS van."
But, Halayko said, despite being ready to go to trial in the spring, the prosecutors office discovered "inconsistent statements" Smith gave to medical personnel and police after she was back in Massachusetts. This plea is a way to ensure a conviction, Halayko said.
The New Jersey attorney general's office requires prosecutors to consult with sexual assault victims "prior to the conclusion of any plea negotiations," though victims don't have to agree to the plea in order for it to go forward.
Smith's journey began in December 2015, when she was arrested outside the drug rehabilitation program she'd attended for the prior six weeks. After spending Christmas in the Los Angeles county jail, the PTS van showed up. She was handcuffed and placed in a small compartment called the "birdcage" between the male prisoners and male guards.
She spent 14 days there, stopping only to pick or drop off prisoners, or when the guards wanted fast food. When she was almost home — on day 12 — Smith says Taylor pulled her aside during a jail stop in Atlantic County, New Jersey. While he directed another prisoner to pick up trash in the van, and she remained handcuffed and shackled, she said he stuck his hands down her pants and put his finger in her vagina.
Smith, still handcuffed, said nothing. She had two more days before she'd make it back to Massachusetts and out of Taylor's watch. When they got to her drop off point in Middleton, Mass., surveillance cameras captured Taylor slipping a piece of paper in Smith's pants pocket. According to a police report, it had his name and number on it, so they could "finish what we started."
When Taylor finally left, Smith told an officer what happened.
"A woman such as myself in the process of extradition by a transport van may expect not to be allowed bathroom breaks when needed, perhaps not given the opportunity to drink water when thirsty, or for sleep when tired, or perhaps the tightness of her handcuffs," Smith told the court. "But surely any woman, even a woman in custody, should not expect that she will be sexually assaulted."
Almost two years later, charges were filed against Taylor in Atlantic County, where the assault occurred.
Smith still has a civil suit filed against the transport company that employed Taylor. The civil attorney representing PTS in the suit was at Friday's sentencing, conferring with Taylor's public defender. He also declined comment.
The private prison transport industry on the whole is under scrutiny by lawmakers.
Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and two of her congressional colleagues demanded answers from PTS in a letter. Dissatisfied with PTS' response, Warren and two other lawmakers asked the Department of Justice's inspector general to investigate the companies, and examine whether the DOJ is doing its job to oversee the industry.
That move came after WBUR's May report about Smith, and other harrowing stories from media of alleged prisoner abuse, neglect and sexual assault.
Smith's case is similar to another in New Mexico. In that case, federal documents show, an armed PTS guard transporting a woman from Kentucky to New Mexico fondled and penetrated the woman with his fingers, while she was restrained.
But unlike Taylor, this guard is expected to serve prison time. The guard pleaded guilty in June to violating the woman's civil rights and is expected to serve two years in federal prison as part of a plea agreement. He'll also register as a sex offender. He will be sentenced later this month.
Taylor will go home to Kentucky.
Smith, now 28, is finishing up her psychology degree, in between balancing time with her 8-year-old son. She waited to travel to New Jersey until Friday morning, so she could take him trick-or-treating Thursday night.
And on Monday, Smith starts work as a full-time counselor at a women's treatment facility in central Massachusetts.
Resources: 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.
This segment aired on November 1, 2019.
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