Brian Balzer, guard at the Washington County jail in Oregon, faces prosecution by the state for sexual misconduct and supplying contraband. Photograph: YouTube He was in a position of power
Talking publicly for the first time since
her case made headlines, Buckmaster told the Guardian she wanted to speak out in the hopes that it might help other women who have faced sexual violence and discourage law enforcement from jailing victims.
I feel like [prosecutors] have victimized me as much as he has, she said.
Speaking through a thick glass wall in a 4ft-by-4ft visitation room and dressed in an orange prison uniform, Buckmaster said she barely had enough money in her jail account to call her boyfriend or purchase hygiene products from the commissary, and the district attorneys office hasnt offered help. Prosecutors have also publicly named her in court documents, instead of protecting her privacy. The Guardian does not usually identify victims of sexual assault.
After growing up in Washington state, Buckmaster moved to Portland, Oregon, when she was 13, she said. She has been in and out of prison over the last two decades for a range of nonviolent offenses stemming from her struggle with drug addiction.
She said she was a survivor of child sex abuse, and explained that it had had a lasting impact on her relationships.
In 2012, at Coffee Creek, the only state prison for women in Oregon, Buckmaster met Balzer, a 42-year-old guard who she said repeatedly coerced her into sex and exploited her until her release in 2014. She spent some of her sentence in the prisons mental health unit, records show.
He was in a position of power and took advantage of someone who wasnt mentally stable, said Buckmaster, adding that her past abuse made her vulnerable to his advances. I didnt have anybody.
According to the Washington County district attorneys office, Balzer engaged in sexual conduct with Buckmaster and gave her perfume samples, and the abuse only came to light after she was released, when she mentioned the relationship to a staff member at a facility where she was living.
Prosecutors charged Balzer with felonies of custodial sexual misconduct and supplying contraband. Buckmaster testified in front of a grand jury last year, and Balzer was indicted in November. On the
day of his arrest, he posted $2,000 bail and was let go.
By law, there is no such thing as consensual sex between guards and inmates since staff have
complete control over the lives of prisoners. Any sexual activity is considered criminal.
The inmates have no power, said Betsy Rawls, Buckmasters lawyer. If they deny [sexual advances], theyre going to have to see them every day.
Buckmaster said she was desperate for a sense of safety and comfort in prison and that it took her time after her release to realize how Balzer had manipulated her.
Im tired of blaming myself for somebody elses actions, she said.
Buckmaster recently struggled with relapse, and when her parole officer and other law enforcement officers allegedly had trouble locating her, deputy district attorney Dan Hesson requested a so-called material witness warrant for her. Prosecutors wanted her in custody until trial.
Buckmaster said she had been making progress in her recovery and had always planned to participate in the trial. But her promises didnt matter. Washington County circuit judge Charles Bailey approved prosecutors request, and on 16 August, she returned to jail.
A perverse use of jail
Criminal justice reform activists have fought back against the detention of material witnesses, arguing that it is unjust to imprison people who are not accused of crimes. By law, the holds are only supposed to be used in
extraordinary circumstances as a last resort, and advocates argue that it is particularly cruel to detain witnesses who are victims.
This is a perverse way of using our criminal justice system and using our jails, said Julia Yoshimoto, program director of the Oregon Justice Resource Centers Women in Prison Project.
Buckmaster and her attorneys have said she would show up for trial and would be willing to wear an ankle bracelet and also complete a deposition in advance.
But Hesson, the deputy district attorney, said jailing her was the only feasible option.
Citing the fact that Buckmaster contacted Balzer after she was released, Hesson claimed in a filing that she was complicit in perpetuating the illicit relationship between she and the defendant. He further claimed that Ms Buckmaster has led a life of crime and wasted considerable public resources when prosecutors were unable to locate her.
Brent Goodfellow, another attorney representing Buckmaster, scoffed at the claim: Its expensive for Washington County to house her.
I dont want to run, Buckmaster said. Hes going to pay for what happened If I have to be accountable for my actions and for my past, he has to be accountable for his.
Balzers attorney declined to comment.
Reached by phone, Hesson confirmed that his office had not provided Buckmaster with any victim support services while she was in jail. He also repeatedly declined to comment on whether prosecutors considered her a victim.
It is a terrible idea that she is in jail, Hesson said, but I cant find a better alternative.
Counting the days
Advocates said they were concerned that the Balzer case could have a chilling effect on victims reporting sexual violence in prisons especially in Oregon, which has a documented history of problems.
At Coffee Creek, at least eight employees have been convicted of sexual misconduct cases involving inmates since 2004,
according to the Oregonian. The paper reported that the state has paid $1.2m to17 victims who said prison employees abused them.
Studies have also shown that, like Buckmaster, many who get caught up in the criminal justice system have histories of trauma nearly
six in 10 women in state prisons have previously experienced physical or sexual abuse.
The system often retraumatizes them, said Emily Austin, director of advocacy services for the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
These days, Buckmaster said, she struggles to cope when she feels triggered or depressed. She said she has dreams of building a treehouse with her boyfriend, living somewhere serene and quiet, starting a family, and is counting the days until the trial, scheduled for 4 October.
Often, though, she just paces back and forth in her cell.