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Law and Justice

Questions hang over sexual assault claims involving former nurse in Oregon women’s prison

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Todd Blackwood
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Special for OPB

At least 27 women have accused nurse Tony Klein of inappropriate actions and sexual assault while he worked at the Coffee Creek prison in Oregon. To date, he has never been charged with a crime. But that may change soon, as OPB has learned a federal investigation remains underway.

Editor’s note: This story contains detailed descriptions of rape allegations and other sexual abuse. OPB does not typically name people who allege sexual assault. The women named in this article decided they wanted to speak on the record and use their names.

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Video screenshot
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Plaintiff deposition via Michelle Burrows
In this video screenshot, Tony Klein was deposed in November 2019 as part of civil litigation involving 10 women incarcerated at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, who accused him of sexual abuse.

Tony Klein spent more than seven years working as a nurse at the Oregon Department of Corrections, but he had already resigned by the time he would face a barrage of questions about his time there.

Throughout the hours-long deposition on Nov. 20, 2019, he never took off his coat, and often rested his elbows on a table, where his interlocked fingers covered part of his wedding ring.

“There are 18 women who have made accusations against you for sexual touching or comments,” stated Michelle Burrows, an attorney for some of the women who months earlier sued Klein and the state’s prison system.

“Are each one of these women telling the truth, as far as you know?”

“No,” Klein responded. “They’re not telling the truth.”

“They’re not?” Burrows asked. “They’re all lying?

“Yes,” Klein said.

Since Klein was questioned more than two years ago, the number of allegations against him has grown to 27 women, the Oregon Department of Corrections confirmed Monday.

To date, Klein has never been charged with a crime. The case against him has largely hinged on his word against a group of women with criminal records. For women in prison to be believed they are not only required to prove their allegations true, they also have to overcome their criminal histories. Klein’s case shows how institutions in Oregon, from the local prosecutor’s office to the state nursing board, are willing to leave questions of sexual assault in prison unresolved, even if it means more trauma for women trying to rehabilitate their lives.

The women in Klein’s case allege sexual assaults that included digital penetration, oral sex or rape, while they were incarcerated at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, according to court filings and internal records from numerous agencies OPB obtained mainly through public records requests. Some women allege he also made sexually explicit remarks and exposed himself.

Klein, 37, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing or abuse. Currently, he’s employed as a registered nurse by Legacy Health.

“We do not have a comment for your story,” Klein’s attorney, Andrew Campbell, wrote in an email to OPB last week.

Klein faced various criminal investigations and professional reviews between 2017 and 2020, but the most significant development that tipped the scales of justice in his favor was a two-page memo written by Washington County Deputy District Attorney Rayney Meisel. In the 2018 letter, she cited conflicting facts uncovered by Oregon State Police who looked into the women’s allegations. And she predicted a jury and the courts would likely side against the women if her office criminally charged Klein.

“I have concerns that this did not happen in the way that all of the women said that it happened,” Meisel said in an interview. “The takeaway is that are these women perfect victims? Yes. Because even if it happens, no one believes them.”

After Meisel’s office declined charges, Burrows filed 10 lawsuits on behalf of women who had been incarcerated at Coffee Creek.

“Tony is a sexual predator. He is a sick man,” Burrows told OPB. “He found a place for himself to hide, to explore his sickness and the DOC, they don’t even see the bad guy amongst them.”

In their lawsuits, the women claimed the state Department of Corrections failed to keep them safe from sexual abuse. In 2020, Oregon paid $1.72 million to settle all 10 cases. As part of the agreements, no agency or individual admitted wrongdoing.

Though law enforcement in Oregon ultimately walked away from Klein’s case, unable to prove what did or did not happen inside the Coffee Creek prison, the case is not over.

OPB has learned the U.S. Department of Justice has been looking into Klein for more than two years. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon declined to confirm or deny the existence of any investigation. That said, documents obtained by OPB from the Oregon Department of Justice and the Oregon State Police reference an ongoing federal investigation. Klein also acknowledged in his deposition that FBI agents visited him in 2019. Some of Klein’s accusers also say federal law enforcement interviewed them and asked about Klein during their time at Coffee Creek.

For the women involved, a federal case is the last chance for their allegations against Klein to be proven if they are to get any public reckoning for the alleged abuse.

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
Lisa Whipple at her home in La Grande, Ore., in December 2021. She says she never reported the sexual assault incidents she endured at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility out of fear it would delay her release from prison.

When Lisa Whipple got to prison, she became a runner. As many as six days per week, she’d put her headphones in and jog three miles on the track in the yard at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility while listening to whatever was on the radio.

After years of drug use, the then-32-year-old said it felt good to be clean. Distributing methamphetamine had landed Whipple in prison.

The morning of Oct. 23, 2016, Whipple was heading out for her run when she started feeling dizzy and nauseous. She sat down on a bench before going back to her cell, where she started vomiting. Whipple worried about her genetic heart condition. From her cell, she next went to the prison infirmary. Klein helped authorize an ambulance ride to the emergency room.

Klein began working at Oregon’s only women’s prison in 2010. Coffee Creek is in Wilsonville, about 16 miles south of Portland.

After she returned from the hospital to Coffee Creek, Whipple stayed in the infirmary for a few nights. While she was there, she said she saw Klein again.

“And so he kind of came and sat. And he grabbed my hand and rubbed my hand and said, ‘You really need some lotion. Your hands are dry.’

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
A tattooed verse from the Bible on Lisa Whipple's arm reads: “She’s clothed with strength and dignity, she laughs without fear of the future.”

“It was creepy,” Whipple recalled during her 2019 deposition. “It was startling that he would caress my hands.”

Whipple said from that point forward at Coffee Creek, she estimated she saw Klein for between five and eight appointments related to her heart condition. During those appointments, Klein would rub her back, her leg or inner thigh, she alleged under oath. He cupped her breasts, she said, and once during an exam Klein kissed her and moved her hand onto his erect penis.

“He told me I looked like I would be fun, implying that it would be fun to have sex with me,” she said.

Whipple never reported the incidents. Inmates have little power compared to staff, and she feared any response could delay her release from prison.

“They’re going to cover their ass,” Whipple said during the 2019 deposition. “It all gets put on the inmate because we’re inmates and we’re felons, and people don’t believe the shit that we say.”

Colleagues and women in custody at the prison who were deposed in Burrows’ lawsuit described Klein as friendly, and at times, flirtatious. One supervisor recalled him as diligent and dependable. He finished his work every day and showed up on time. Others said his relationship with management was tense. Sometimes, he talked about his wife, kids or the house he was fixing up.

“He would just tell me personal things about his life,” Michaella Lovewell said during a 2019 deposition while still serving her sentence at Coffee Creek. Lovewell worked as an orderly in the prison infirmary.

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
Michaella Lovewell alleges that Tony Klein’s friendly and flirtatious behavior toward some of the women in Coffee Creek Correctional Facility was “designed to elicit trust.” During Lovewell’s prison sentence, she worked as an orderly in the Coffee Creek infirmary and says she was repeatedly assaulted by Klein.

When Lovewell entered prison in 2014, she was pregnant and first met Klein during prenatal appointments. He was there when her water broke, she said, and talked her through early labor. After she gave birth, Lovewell put her daughter up for adoption and returned to Coffee Creek to finish a nearly six-year sentence for second degree assault.

Back in prison, Lovewell took a job in the infirmary, where she said she wanted to support other pregnant women in custody. She said Klein was kind during that low point in her life.

“I thought that like — like we had a friendship, that somebody cared, you know, somebody was nice,” Lovewell said during her deposition. “The way you get treated in here is like you’re nothing. You’re just a number and they make sure that you know that. And so I trusted him and I was wrong for that. I shouldn’t have done that.”

In their lawsuits, Lovewell, Whipple and the eight other women alleged Klein’s friendly and flirtatious behavior toward some of the women in Coffee Creek was “designed to elicit trust.” They claimed Klein sought out women who were vulnerable because they had experienced trauma.

“All the women selected by Klein met a rough profile of having extensive sexual abuse histories which were easily accessed by Klein on the ODOC record-keeping database,” all 10 of the women stated in their complaints.

Klein made hundreds of searches of certain inmates in custody, according to Oregon State Police records. Those searches included personal information, criminal history, what the women were buying in prison and who was putting money on their books. Klein told Burrows under oath during his deposition that anything he looked up was for medical reasons.

Burrows asked Klein whether he accessed records that contained information about addiction and abuse for four of her clients, including Lovewell and Whipple.

Klein said accessing inmates’ behavioral health services (BHS) files was a “routine” part of his job as a nurse, but denied learning anything about the women’s prior sexual abuse or addictions.

“Would you be surprised to learn that each of those women said that you have, in fact, talked to them about information that they believe was contained only in their BHS files?” Burrows asked during the deposition.

“Yes,” Klein said.

“Why?” Burrows asked.

“Because it’s not true,” Klein said.

“Okay. So they’re all not telling the truth?” Burrows asked.

“That would be correct.” Klein responded.

“And you’re the one telling the truth here about accessing BHS files?” the attorney asked.

“Yes,” he said.

The rates of women in custody who say they have experienced sexual assault is alarmingly high. A 2012 federal report found 86% of women in jail experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes, about twice the rate of the general population. A 1999 study from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found one in four women in state prisons nationwide were sexually abused before they were 18 years old. One-third of women said they were raped before serving their current prison sentence.

The Oregon Justice Resource Center, a nonprofit, also conducted a survey of women in Coffee Creek during the winter of 2017 and the spring of 2018. Women were asked about trauma and how it contributed to their criminal convictions. Of the 66 women who responded to that part of the survey, more than 75% reported being sexually abused as a child or teen, while 55% said they were sexually abused as adults.

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
Many women in jail have experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes, about twice the rate of the general population. Michaella Lovewell also fit that pattern, arriving at prison with a long history of assaults.

Many of the women involved in the Klein case fit those statistics.

When Lovewell was 7, a babysitter molested her. When she turned 13, she said, her cousin raped her. That went on for three years.

“I asked him one time why he did it to me, and he said he didn’t know,” Lovewell said during her 2019 deposition.

When she was 19 years old, Lovewell worked as a dancer in Grants Pass. She said someone raped her during a house call.

She didn’t report those assaults to the police. They were just trauma she carried with her to prison. By the time she entered Coffee Creek for assaulting a woman she said was having an affair with the father of her children, Lovewell had endured years of abuse from men in her life.

Klein would add to that abuse, she alleged.

Once while she was cleaning a staff bathroom, Lovewell said Klein told her: “‘You just make me want to fuck you so bad.’” Klein later allegedly tried to kiss her and she pushed him away. Another time, she said, she was walking in the infirmary and he put his hand down the back of her pants and into her vagina.

Another day, she was folding clothes in a closet in the infirmary when Klein walked in. “He bent me over the sink, pulled down my pants, and performed oral sex on me,” she recalled under oath in 2019. “I froze.”

Other women who accused Klein said he had power over their lives in prison.

“When he would listen to my heart, he would always put the stethoscope underneath my shirt and underneath my bra and fully cup my breast while listening to my heart,” Whipple said. “He would listen for a long time, a lot longer than any other nurse.”

Klein acknowledged he met with Whipple for a “couple of different attempts” to transmit data from a medical device she carried that monitored her heart for her specialists outside the prison. Only one of those appointments is documented in the medical chart, according to prison documents and deposition transcripts.

Weeks before Whipple was released from prison, she said, she sat on a table in an exam room for what would be her final appointment with Klein.

“When he went to listen to my heartbeat,” she said, “he came in between my legs and he had an erection. And he started, like, blowing in my ear and then kind of doing the kisses down the neck.”

Whipple said Klein pulled her head back by her ponytail, rubbed her other hand on his penis and began kissing her on the mouth. She was scared.

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
Doug and Lisa Whipple at their home in La Grande, Ore., in December 2021. Lisa Whipple says she never reported the sexual assault incidents at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility out of fear it would delay her release from prison.

The appointment ended abruptly when another nurse walked in. Whipple didn’t remember Klein’s exact words as she left. “It was just, ‘Alright. Thanks for coming in. We’ll see you next time’ type thing.”

Whipple said her doctors are still missing data from her time at Coffee Creek.

“What he was supposed to be doing was to be sending my medical information to my cardiologist to figure out why I almost died. And he failed,” Whipple stated under oath. “He never got that information to anybody. He continued to bring me down there to fondle my breasts and touch my vagina.”

Oregon State Police showed up at the Coffee Creek prison on the afternoon of Nov. 16, 2017. The day before, one of the women in custody sought medical attention, believing Klein had given her a sexually transmitted disease.

According to a lawsuit the woman filed, she had “continual vaginal bleeding for nearly fifty days” after she allegedly had sex with Klein in the medical unit. OPB is not naming the woman because she was unable to consent to publicly discussing her allegations. The lawsuit was later dismissed in federal court because it was outside the statute of limitations.

While the woman told detectives “he did not rape me,” the power dynamic between staff and inmates is so drastic prisoners cannot consent to relationships. It’s a crime for staff to have sexual relations with people in custody. The woman told the detectives she kept her underwear after the sexual encounter. She also told them about two other encounters with Klein that involved kissing. Detectives took the underwear to test for DNA.

The Department of Corrections was able to confirm two of the three medical appointments the woman had with Klein when the alleged sexual contact occurred.

A week after state police first visited the prison, detectives Chad Drew and Jace Hall returned to speak with Klein. He told the detectives he didn’t know why they were talking to him, but thought it might be “in regards to a complaint from female inmates,” the OSP investigation states. In the report, the detectives said they could prove “some type of contact was made between him and a female inmate.” Several times, Klein denied he’d had any inappropriate contact with women in the prison.

Klein blamed his supervisors for the position he found himself in. He told detectives he saw female inmates alone during exams, even though it was a violation of prison policy for staff to be by themselves with an inmate. Documents show Klein complained to his superiors about the risks it posed for staff.

The detectives asked Klein for a DNA sample.

“To kinda nip this thing before it gets anywhere,” Drew said, according to a transcript of the interview.

“I prefer not to,” Klein replied.

After the interview ended, Klein’s boss placed him on leave pending the investigation. Two months later, the detectives interviewed Klein a second time. By then, he had accepted a job at Legacy Health and was in the process of resigning from the Oregon Department of Corrections.

This time, detectives had a search warrant to collect a DNA sample. They told Klein they knew he had sex with one of his accusers, according to the state police investigation. He declined to comment, except to tell detectives the inmate was fabricating the story to get a financial settlement from the state. The detectives wrote in their report that they “spoke to Klein about his actions during the interview” and told Klein that “he was being deceptive.”

As time passed, detectives spoke with more women in custody. Many recounted stories of Klein touching them and other non-consensual sexual encounters.

But a counter narrative also emerged, one that made it more difficult for prosecutors to prove their case.

In interviews, a least three women warned detectives the allegations against Klein were a setup. According to the state police investigation, one inmate told detectives that another inmate encouraged her “to say the nurse did some things to her” and that “there were sixteen other females in on making false allegations about being touched by the nurse.” The prison intercepted a letter one woman at Coffee Creek wrote to her husband about Klein being set up by two women for financial settlements from the state. That woman would later tell detectives she didn’t have firsthand knowledge. “It was all rumors,” detectives wrote in their report.

The state had previously paid the woman who first accused Klein $15,000 in a previous settlement over alleged sexual contact with a prison staff member, court records show. The case against Klein weakened further after the State Police Forensic Laboratory failed to find his DNA on the woman’s underwear.

With numerous accusations in hand, as well as the questions about motive and integrity hanging over the case, state police delivered their findings to the Washington County District Attorney’s Office on March 1, 2018.

At least six more women told detectives after the initial investigation that Klein had assaulted them as well, but it was too late.

By August 2018, prosecutors had begun drafting a memo to explain why they would not charge Klein.

Meisel, the Washington County deputy district attorney, led the review of OSP’s investigation.

“When taken as a whole, the allegations are unsupportable,” Meisel wrote in her memo after examining the evidence. “While it may be true that some of these inmates did, in fact, engage in sexual activity with (Klein), the information we have is too unreliable to present to a jury.”

Meisel noted the first accuser’s prior settlement and pointed to inconsistencies she saw in the women’s stories.

“Various inmates described Defendant’s penis as large, medium, and small,” Meisel’s memo stated. “It was also described as circumcised and uncircumcised.”

She wrote that defense attorneys could make a credible case the women were trying to extort the Department of Corrections. In an interview last fall with OPB, Meisel, who prosecutes child sex abuse cases, said there was too much evidence stacked against her to move the Klein case forward.

“When I’m reviewing a case, especially a sexual assault case, I sort of start with the idea we believe victims. We believe women when they say that something happened to them,” Meisel said. “There was both an inability to prove this case, but then there was also concerns with believability, ultimately.”

Meisel said she has sympathy for Klein’s accusers, but questioned whether the allegations are entirely true. In her charging decision memo, Meisel noted how some women in the prison believed it was “an elaborate set-up by several inmates.” She told OPB if the allegations are true, the women were the “perfect victims.”

“Whether it happened or it didn’t happen, nobody knows because of their status as convicted felons and because of this vulnerable circumstance that they’re in — and because there are people that are willing to lie about what happened to just try and get money,” Meisel said. “That’s a really sad, devastating situation for anybody to be in.”

Burrows, the attorney who represented the women, places blame with the Washington County District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Corrections.

“It appears that they believe some of the women, not necessarily everyone but some of the women they interviewed, were not telling the truth,” Burrows said. “The district attorney felt that implicated the credibility of the entire prosecution, which is of course absurd.”

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Allison Frost
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OPB
Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville is Oregon's only women's prison.

Since opening in 2001, Coffee Creek has had at least a dozen sexual abuse scandals involving staff who have been sued and criminally convicted, Burrows stated in court papers. Often, the cases involved multiple women incarcerated at the prison.

Despite the prison’s documented issues and many of Klein’s accusers having histories of enduring sexual abuse, internal Department of Corrections reports and emails with the agency show their own investigators could not determine if 23 of the 27 allegations against Klein were true or false. Three cases remain under investigation.

In the lone case involving Klein where DOC made a determination about the sexual abuse, investigators deemed the allegation to be unfounded. The same woman received the single largest financial settlement — $290,000 — as part of the civil litigation Burrows filed. In response to questions about the payout, a DOC spokesperson said many factors beyond “merit” of an accusation go into deciding whether to settle a lawsuit.

“Especially with staff on inmate sexual abuse, you must be able to determine whether or not that happened. You must. And if you can’t, that’s a huge failure and a huge liability,” said Julie Abbate, a former deputy chief with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. “If you can’t, figure out why not. Why can’t you tell?”

The Oregon Department of Corrections declined an interview request. In a written response, the agency said the number of unsubstantiated cases of sexual abuse in Oregon prisons have increased in recent years. DOC staff said they support women in prison filing complaints, and believe the increase is an indication that those in custody “feel comfortable coming forward.”

Both in Oregon and nationally, the majority of sexual assault and misconduct allegations are unsubstantiated for people in custody. Between 2016 and 2018, just 5.2% of allegations of staff sexually assaulting inmates nationwide were substantiated, while 46.8% remained unsubstantiated, according to a June 2021 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics based on data from correctional administrators. The other 48% were unfounded.

Abbate, the former U.S. Justice Department civil rights prosecutor, now works at the nonprofit human rights organization Just Detention International, which aims to eliminate sexual abuse in detention settings. She said a high number of unsubstantiated cases in Oregon could mean investigators aren’t doing a good job or that women in custody are making allegations to get other issues addressed. She said failing to get to the bottom of whether abuse occurred has widespread implications for any prison and its culture toward sexual violence.

“If no one can ever tell whether this happened or not, why would you ever report?” she asked.

In September 2018, about nine months after resigning from the Oregon Department of Corrections, Klein moved to renew his Oregon nursing license. Days earlier, the Washington County District Attorney’s Office had decided it would not file criminal charges.

Like the Department of Corrections, Oregon State Police and the DA’s office, the Oregon State Board of Nursing would not go as far as they could in holding Klein accountable.

As part of the renewal process, nurses are asked if they were investigated for violations of state or federal law. Klein answered no.

The following week, the Department of Corrections contacted the nursing board and turned over its internal report that “showed that Nurse Tony Klein allegedly engaged in sexual contact with multiple victims that included kissing, touching, oral sex and sexual intercourse.” The nursing board opened its own investigation and questioned Klein.

The board alleged Klein wasn’t truthful when he reapplied for his license because he didn’t disclose the criminal investigation, according to documents OPB obtained through a records request. On June 12, 2019, the board’s members issued a proposed revocation of Klein’s nursing license.

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
Michaella Lovewell was among 10 women who received settlements from the state. “I’ve been through a lot of things in my life, a lot of sexual abuse, and I just — I feel like he should pay for it,” Lovewell said. “DOC should protect us here. We shouldn’t have to deal with these things.”

Whatever happened next, happened behind closed doors. According to his deposition, Klein lawyered up in the nursing board case. Instead of taking his license, in June 2020 the board issued a reprimand, a formal notice Klein violated the board’s nursing standards. It also issued a $2,500 fine and noted that the Washington County District Attorney’s Office “declined to prosecute due to insufficient evidence.”

Klein disclosed during the 2019 deposition that his new employer, Legacy Health, was aware of past news coverage of his case and the women’s lawsuits against him. He said the health system implemented a written work agreement for certain tasks he was not to do alone until, he said, everything was resolved.

“After I told them about the pending lawsuit, we had a meeting and collectively came up with some way to protect myself and also Legacy,” Klein said. “I have no restrictions on who I can have as patients. I need a second person in the room if I’m going to provide what we call peri care, so cleaning of somebody’s private parts after they use the bathroom.”

OPB asked Legacy a series of questions about Klein in December based on the answers he gave during his deposition. Legacy spokeswoman Vicki Guinn wrote in an email that the health system could not share legally protected information about its employees.

“We can confirm Legacy Health has in place a robust screening process for all new hires consistent with industry standards,” Guinn wrote. “Our screening process for nurses includes a criminal background check, checks for sanctions or discipline with the Oregon State Board of Nursing, licensure verification and employment history verification.”

Klein remained employed by Legacy Health as of March 4.

Allegations of sexual assault can be hard, sometimes impossible, to prove. And Klein’s case shows that is especially true for women who have been incarcerated.

Many Oregon institutions charged with safeguarding the public looked into Klein. They relied on one another’s investigations to find out what did or did not happen inside the Coffee Creek prison. Yet, years later, none of those institutions can make a definitive statement about the sexual assaults and allegations many women have leveled at Klein.

For the women who made the accusations, that lack of an answer is just another indication of how they are dehumanized and stigmatized because of their pasts.

“Society views incarcerated women as not much more than prisoners and cannot see them as three-dimensional human beings that can also be victims,” said Aliza Kaplan, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland who represents people in custody.

Whipple and Lovewell were among 10 women who received settlements from the state. Both women expressed disbelief when they learned Klein still works as a nurse. Nothing had changed.

In 2019, after recounting her life and the abuse allegations during a deposition, an attorney representing the Department of Corrections asked Lovewell if there was anything she wanted to add.

She looked directly into the camera.

“I want to talk to Tony,” Lovewell replied, thrusting her arms toward the camera. “Tony, you do not get to victimize me today. This is done.”

She said she wanted justice.

“I’ve been through a lot of things in my life, a lot of sexual abuse, and I just — I feel like he should pay for it,” Lovewell said. “DOC should protect us here. We shouldn’t have to deal with these things.”

After prison, Whipple got married and used her legal settlement to help buy a house, which her husband fixed up during the pandemic. She’s now a certified alcohol and drug counselor.

When she thinks back on her time at Coffee Creek, she’s angry.

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Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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OPB
Lisa Whipple at her home in La Grande, Ore., purchased with her legal settlement to help buy a house. She’s now a certified alcohol and drug counselor and says she hopes to create a safe space for others who are in need.

“One of the reasons people don’t come out of prison rehabilitated is because these things happen,” Whipple said. “You can’t be rehabilitated when they’re causing more trauma.”

She said being incarcerated is the punishment, and being safe inside isn’t a privilege, it’s a basic human right that for too many is broken.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting