Prison rape: Justice Department says poor design, training, attitudes fuel assaults

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Last year a federal review panel heard some amazing excuses from corrections officials about why their jails and prisons have exceptionally high rates of sexual assault. One sheriff even claimed inmates were faking stories of rape in order to get cookies from researchers.

Another operator of a notoriously brutal hoosegow described the whole phenomenon of rape behind bars as a "cultural delusion" on a par with UFOs.

Now the U.S. Department of Justice Prison Rape Review Panel has issued a detailed report on the hearings, concluding that the difference between well-run and relatively safe correctional facilities and the snake pits has nothing to do with flying saucers. Instead, the difference comes down to training, the physical layout of the place, and staff attitudes about rape.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics survey estimates that more than 200,000 adult prisoners endured sexual assaults in 2008, roughly one out of twelve. But testimony before the panel indicated that the rate of assault varies widely among state and federal operations; facilities that have the lowest rates also tend to have better training programs, more vigilant monitoring of common areas -- and a better track record of actually investigating and prosecuting assaults. By contrast, the jails with some of the highest incidences of rape have much weaker policies in place -- and a kind of institutional indifference to crimes committed against their most vulnerable populations.

Openly gay inmates are among the most frequent targets of sexual predators behind bars -- in part because staff fail to take their claims seriously, as demonstrated in my story last year about former Colorado inmate Scott Howard, who was raped and extorted by a prison gang, then denounced as a "drama queen" by officials he asked for help. Howard ultimately settled a lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Corrections for $165,000. The review panel's report offers similar harrowing accounts, including one by a Louisiana jail inmate who described being raped repeatedly by his cellies and getting no help from staff:

"A.A. stated that despite filing at least six grievances and trying to approach correctional officers, he never received a response...on one occasion he tried to give a grievance to a correctional officer, and the correctional officer allegedly responded, "'a faggot raped in prison -- imagine that!'"

"Unfortunately, the attention given to eliminating sexual abuse is not the same throughout the nation," the review panel acknowledges. "We know that sexual assaults can be reduced by changing attitudes toward potentially vulnerable populations, including female, LGBTQ, and physically frail inmates; paying close attention to institutional design and surveillance; providing offender education and staff training; improving operational policies and post orders; and monitoring adherence to established policies."

It's estimated that even a modest reduction in sexual assault rates behind bars could save the country millions in lawsuits and other impacts. But getting there is going to take an attitude adjustment that brings some stargazing prison officials back to planet Earth.

More from our Prison Life archive: "Juveniles prosecuted as adults: Colorado's hardline approach not working, report says."

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