Alex Coolman, Sexual Misconduct in Women's Facilities: The Current Climate, Corrections Today, October 2003.
Jackie Noyes caused a sensation when her story
hit the papers this spring. The 24-year-old, mentally ill female inmate at
Wisconsin's Taycheedah Correctional Institution had been sent to
disciplinary segregation as punishment after she was impregnated by a TCI
corrections officer. The moment her situation was described publicly, it
became a scandal.
"Abuse of Power in Prison" was the headline of
a searing editorial that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran about the
case, and several hard-hitting news articles followed. Battered by the
publicity, Taycheedah officials released Noyes from segregation - but not
before the reputation of the facility had been linked in the public mind
to what the Journal Sentinel called "guards who take advantage of their
public trust for the sake of sex." Such cases, unfortunately, are not as
unusual as one would hope.
In recent months, a federal lawsuit has
alleged that female inmates became pregnant by corrections officers in New
York; a male California officer pled guilty to assaulting a female inmate;
and a female officer in Colorado was sentenced to five years' probation
for having sexual relationships with two male inmates. In Maryland and
Texas, a corrections officer and a prison doctor were arrested on
suspicion of sexual assault. Sadly, Wisconsin has plenty of company.
But the headlines, however compelling they may
be, don't tell the entire story. A less sensational reality, one that
exists alongside the reports of misconduct, is that attitudes and agency
responses toward sexual contact between officers and inmates have changed
in recent years. Sexual misbehavior, along with practices such as
name-calling and inappropriate leering, is now explicitly prohibited by
the policies of many corrections departments.
And though sexual misconduct remains a threat
to the physical and psychological health of inmates, many corrections
departments and groups such as the American Jail Association have adopted
language that makes it clear they understand the weight of the issue.
"It's all in the way you handle it," said
Chuck Jackson, chief of the correctional services division for the Los
Angeles County Sheriff's Department. In the Los Angeles County system, he
noted, all allegations of custodial misconduct are investigated for
possible criminal prosecution, and the inquiry is automatically referred
to the department's internal affairs bureau. Taycheedah-style responses to
misconduct - where dismissal is assumed to be punishment enough for any
sexual offense - are, in some places, a thing of the past, and in late
2002, a Los Angeles custody assistant was sentenced to three years in
prison for performing sex acts with an inmate.
"It's to our benefit and to (the officer's)
benefit to conduct an investigation," Jackson said. If allegations weren't
handled that way, he added, "we'd just be sitting here saying we didn't
believe the inmate, and that just doesn't fly anymore."
A Mental and Physical Health Threat
While a forcible sexual assault poses a
serious danger to an inmate's health by anyone's measure, non-forcible
sexual encounters between staff and inmates are typically considered
harmful as well. As many agencies, including the Federal Bureau of
Prisons, have noted, the great imbalance of power between officer and
inmate makes the notion of "consent" impossible.
But the nonconsensual nature of such
encounters is only part of the issue. The U.S. Department of Justice
reported in 1999 that nearly half of women in jails in prisons reported
having been physically or sexually abused before incarceration. Fully a
third of the women serving time in state prison reported having been
previously raped, according to the USDOJ.
Cassandra Newkirk is the mental health
director at Rikers Island Penitentiary and has served as an expert witness
in many cases involving the psychological impact of custodial sexual
contact. Newkirk said the likelihood that female inmates have suffered
prior abuse means that the custodial sexual encounter may amount to a
reenactment and reinforcement of trauma. "(Women) feel used and abused all
over again," she said, "even though it was couched in terms of being
Women with a history of prior abuse who are
sexually victimized in custody "do suffer psychological symptoms, or an
exacerbation of their symptoms," including depression and the development
or worsening of post-traumatic stress disorder, she said. Like other forms
of sexual activity behind bars, custodial sexual misconduct also poses a
risk for spreading sexually transmissible diseases, and - for unwanted
For many corrections officials, it has often
gone without saying that sexual contact between officers and inmates is
unacceptable. However, that very assumption - that the boundaries of
appropriate behavior are obvious to all - has sometimes left room for
so-called "bad apples" to exploit ambiguity in policies and legal
In the Taycheedah case, for example, an
investigation into the behavior of the officer who impregnated Noyes found
not only that the officer had previously caused another inmate to become
pregnant; but also that a third female inmate had been sentenced to
segregation for "fraternizing" with yet another officer, while the officer
involved was able to quit and faced no criminal charges.
Lara Stemple, executive director of the
nonprofit human rights group Stop Prisoner Rape, said that part of the
problem in the Taycheedah case is the lack of a Wisconsin law
criminalizing custodial sexual contact. "When this incident happened,
there were still four states in the nation where this kind of behavior
wasn't illegal," Stemple said. "Where explicit prohibitions are not in
place, misconduct is going to happen more often."
Fortunately, recent years have seen a
nationwide push toward creating laws and policies that deal directly with
the issue of sexual behavior. Whereas in late 1999, the USDOJ reported
that eight states were lacking laws on custodial sexual contact,
several of those states subsequently added legislation on this subject,
leaving only Wisconsin, Alabama, Vermont and Oregon as holdouts. Then, in
August, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle signed a law that criminalized custodial
Shari Burt, spokeswoman for the Minnesota
Department of Corrections, said policies and training curriculum have
changed significantly since the state passed its law, in June of 2001,
with the support of the DOC's support. "Any offender, upon admittance to
the facility, is given a brochure, that we developed specifically for the
offender, that explains the law," Burt said.
This effort to make inmates aware of the rules
- and to tell them ways of dealing with potentially problematic situations
- is coupled with annual online training for staff on sexual misconduct.
The training curriculum includes both a discussion of acceptable personal
behavior and information on how to handle concerns about misconduct among
colleagues, she said. "If you believe something may be happening you're
required to report it," Burt said. "You can't just turn your head and look
the other way."
The emphasis on greater clarity in policies is
something found in other corrections departments and in groups like the
American Jail Association, which adopted a draft resolution on staff
sexual misconduct at its May 2003 meeting. The resolution expresses
support for the creation of policies and laws to prohibit and criminalize
Room for Improvement
Even with the push for more clarity in laws
and policies, there continue to be gray and problematic areas in the way
sexual contact is understood and responded to by facilities. Stemple said
Stop Prisoner Rape is particularly concerned about the policy of many
facilities to routinely segregate and withhold basic privileges from
inmates who report sexual assault. "This practice may be termed
'non-disciplinary,' but it effectively punishes inmates for reporting
sexual abuse," Stemple said. "We don't feel that this is an acceptable
response, and, unless the inmate requests protective segregation, we would
like to see it end."
Jackson said Los Angeles County does not
segregate inmates who make reports. "That's deemed to be disciplinary in
nature, and we don't have the right to discipline somebody just for making
a complaint," he noted. Instead, Jackson added, staff who have been
accused of sexual misconduct are asked to avoid contact with the inmate
and to avoid potentially problematic situations - such as spending time
alone in a room with an inmate.
Stemple said Stop Prisoner Rape would also
like to see all facilities make sure that inmates have an understanding of
the rules and their rights with regard to sexual contact. Even basic
ground rules for sexual behavior can not necessarily be taken for granted
because of the reality that the lives of many inmates - particularly
female inmates - have been shaped by sexual abuse and the use of sex as a
defense mechanism or a bargaining tool, Newkirk said. "It happens so often
that the women really don't understand what has happened to them over the
years," she said. Some offenders have never developed a clear feeling of
what constitutes abuse, she said, and even the statement "This is not good
for you, because you have a right to [control] what happens to your body,"
may come as a revelation.
Simple, seemingly obvious ideas may also need
to be incorporated into training curriculum for officers. Newkirk noted
that it may not always be clear to everyone that inmates' sexually
provocative behavior or attempts to bargain with sexual favors do not
grant license for inappropriate contact.
What can be safely taken for granted?
Only that sexual misconduct in custody will take place anywhere it is not
explicitly prohibited - and that even the best-run facilities must prepare
to respond to sexual misconduct from time to time.
"We applaud those who have adopted clear
policies to address sexual misconduct," Stemple said. "And, it goes
without saying, that policies on the books are just the beginning.
Enforcement, professionalism, and follow-through will characterize the
response of officials who deal with this problem effectively."
Alex Coolman is the communications coordinator for Stop Prisoner Rape.
Abuse of Power in Prison, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 3,
U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections, Sexual
Misconduct in Prisons: Law, Remedies, and Incidence, May 2000.