British Columbia

Alleged sex assault by jail guard triggers lawsuit

A former B.C. inmate says she was sexually assaulted by a jail guard and has filed a lawsuit against the alleged assailant and the provincial government, CBC News has learned.

Said she felt shame and guilt after alleged attack and reported it

A former B.C. inmate at Surrey Pretrial alleges she was sexually assaulted by a male prison guard 3:14

A former female inmate at B.C.’s Surrey Pretrial Service Centre has filed a lawsuit against the province and a male jail guard who she alleges sexually assaulted her, CBC News has learned.

Danielle Berthelet is a recovering crack addict who was convicted of kidnapping and assaulting a woman and for stealing a cellphone.

Released from jail in November, Berthelet agreed to speak out now that she is no longer in the B.C. corrections system.

In October 2007, while awaiting trial, Berthelet alleges she was sexually assaulted by guard Len DiPrimo.

"It was the absolute darkest days of my life," Berthelet told CBC News. "The guilt and the shame and the embarrassment of it all."

DiPrimo, who no longer works at Surrey Pretrial, denies the allegation.

Berthelet said DiPrimo supervised the work-for-pay maintenance program at the jail and had assigned her to do some painting. Berthelet alleged that when the two were alone, he forced her to perform sex acts.

"I felt so used," she said. "I knew what had happened to me was very wrong."

Reported incident

Berthelet said she told jail staff about the alleged attack later that day.

DiPrimo admitted in his statement of defence in response to the lawsuit that he and Berthelet had contact of a sexual nature, but claimed it was consensual.

DiPrimo was suspended as a result of the incident and then resigned his guard job, but was never charged.

Berthelet said she felt punished for coming forward and was taunted and shunned by guards and other inmates.

She said went from being a model prisoner to being placed in segregation and heavily medicated for five months.

"I tried committing suicide. I sliced my wrists and I had like some 40 odd stitches in my wrist," Berthelet said. "I was crying out for help and nobody was helping me."

Incident investigated

The provincial government said it did conduct an investigation into Berthelet’s claims, but was unable to determine just what happened between her and DiPrimo because of "inconsistencies in her version of the events."

The minister responsible for B.C. jails told CBC News that male guards are not allowed to be alone with female inmates, and the policy has been in effect for more than 20 years.

"There are strict protocols in place," said Attorney General Shirley Bond in Vancouver Wednesday. "Female inmates in a living unit are supervised exclusively by female corrections officers."

A leading advocate for female prisoners in Canada believes the number of sex assaults by jail guards is more prevalent than most people realize.

Kim Pate, the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society said prisoners’ credibility is not respected. 

"Once you're in prison, you've already been labelled as 'bad’ … You've been criminalized, then you're less likely be believed in almost anything you say or do," Pate said.

"When we've come to women who we know have been sexually assaulted or exploited, often times they're not willing to report it because often times they've seen somebody else report in the system, and see them be removed and put into segregation... and basically be seen as someone who's causing difficulty within the institution," said Pate.

Berthelet said she hopes that by her going public, other victims will now come forward.

"Maybe if somebody sees me speaking out, maybe they will, too. And maybe they will get justice for what happened to them," she said.

With files from the CBC's Eric Rankin