Prison rape: Sheriff compares it to UFO sightings, other "cultural delusions"

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Corrections officials are understandably defensive about a controversial Bureau of Justice Statistics survey that indicates a high incidence of prisoner sexual abuse in their facilities. But is that any reason for jail bosses to claim that inmates are concocting fake stories of prison rape in order to get cookies, or that the whole phenomenon is a "cultural delusion" on a par with spotting a flying saucer?

Both theories were proposed last week by detention officials testifying before a U.S. Department of Justice panel reviewing the issue, according to this account from Just Detention International, a group that's campaigned for prison-rape prevention and prosecution. The particular operations under scrutiny had much higher-than-average reports of sexual abuse and harassment in the national (and anonymous) BJS survey of prisons and jails conducted in 2008 and 2009.

A turnkey from Louisiana's Orleans Parish Prison implied that his inmates were exaggerating abuse reports in order to get bags of cookies offered to survey participants by researchers. And Bill Benedict, the sheriff of Washington's Clallam County, suggested that his jail ended up high on the list of jails with rape reports because sexual assault behind bars is a murky, much-mythologized and largely undocumented "cultural delusion" -- kind of like UFO sightings.

But a BJS researcher countered that there was "no difference in average rates of sexual victimization" in jails where cookies were offered to survey participants and those that didn't get cookies. Officials from Florida's Miami-Dade Pre-Trial Detention Center, which ranked uncomfortably high for rape in the survey, also testified but didn't dispute the survey findings, addressing instead the steps they're taking to deal with the problem.

And it is a problem. The lack of official documentation may have something to do with corrections authorities' reluctance to admit how little protection they provide to their most vulnerable inmates -- like openly gay ex-prisoner Scott Howard, whose extortion and exploitation at the hands of a white supremacist gang in the Colorado Department of Corrections was the subject of my February feature "The Devil's Playground."

Howard, whose story went viral soon after that article was published, tried repeatedly to report his plight to prison officials; he was called a "drama queen" and a liar and told to shut up. After his release, he settled a civil rights lawsuit against the DOC for $165,000. That's a lot of cookies, and part of the ongoing toll of administrators' refusal to admit that sexual assault does indeed occur in their institutions, even if it's seldom officially reported and almost never prosecuted.

"Yesterday's widely diverging testimony is a good reminder both of how far we've come, and how far we still have to go," Just Detention International noted in its report. The organization's live updates from the hearings can be found on Twitter under the hashtag #jailrapehrng.

More from our News archive: "Prison rape: New resource center focuses on improving prosecution, prevention."


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12 comments
disqusdik
disqusdik

This is just like the time the Easter Bunny told me Santa wasn't real. When I asked Santa, he told me the same thing about the Easter Bunny. Now I don't know who to believe.

Thomaspaine2nd
Thomaspaine2nd

I can tell you, from experience (20+ years working as a correctional officer) that prison rape does occur in the Colorado Department of Corrections. Anyone who tells you it doesn't, or that it is a rare occurrence is lying to you. I've seen it, and so have many, many others. There are two main reasons that it is not reported. First, you have to understand PREA (the Prison Rape Elimination Act) which does state that ANY sexual act between inmates is considered rape. CDOC emphatically states that there is no such thing as "consensual" sex between inmates because, simply put, sex is not allowed between inmates. Period. Because of this, most staff, and most inmates will not report any sexual act (whether consensual or not) between inmates. Second, and most importantly, staff are discouraged from reporting it. Not officially of course, but there is a certain amount of stigmatization placed upon staff who do report it. They are laughed at in roll call when their reports are read, they are laughed at by disciplinary officers when their reports are reviewed, they are laughed at by their supervisors when they submit their reports, and to top it off, the administration will do nothing about these reports unless the inmate victim is injured in the rape AND if the inmate victim seeks medical attention. Prison rapes are a fact of life in prison. Some are violent assaults, and some are forced through intimidation.

It always amazes me that people are so naive about what goes on inside a prison, not only between inmates, but also between staff and inmates and admin and line staff. Of the 20+ years I spent in my chosen career, I spent 18 of those years with the Colorado Department of Corrections, working both at the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center (I was there when it opened) and at the Limon Correctional Facility (one of the most corrupt, if not THE most corrupt facilities in all of CDOC). During my time with the CDOC I encountered more inmate on inmate and staff on inmate rapes than I can even count. I reported some of the things I witnessed and I was punished for reporting them. So I stopped. (My bad, yes I know, but my sense of self-preservation outweighed my need to protect anyone else). I did, however, continue to document everything I witnessed, and I kept copies of every memo that was given to me (such as the LCF housing memo instructing inmates to use old rags rather than toilet paper, and to turn the rags in when they were done with them). Suffice to say, I do know what I am talking about. Rape does occur in prisons (at least CDOC prisons), as does prostitution, graft, gambling, theft, protection rackets, assault, murder, extortion, and virtually any crime that happens on the street also happens in prison (again, at least in CDOC prisons and these crimes are not always inmate on inmate). When will people wake up and smell the coffee?

Robert Chase
Robert Chase

Benedict should be removed from office and placed among the general population in the Clallam County Jail -- no cookies!

Electronic Cigarette
Electronic Cigarette

This is probably his primary source of masturbatory material, let's not ruin the fantasy for him

ConcernedCitizen
ConcernedCitizen

Does anyone else find it comically uncomfortable that the agency in charge of these investigations is BJS?  BJS is looking into allegations of prison rape?  I feel like I am reading The Onion.

Michael Roberts
Michael Roberts

Interesting post, Thomas. We're going to make it an upcoming Comment of the Day. Thanks for reading.

AlanPrendergast
AlanPrendergast

Thomaspaine2nd,

Thanks for your comments. I would be interested in talking to you about your Limon memos and related matters sometime. You can contact me in confidence at alan.prendergast@westword.com@westword:disqus 

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