Caryn Tamber, Justice Dept. tallies claims of prison rape, The Daily Record (Maryland), August 4, 2005.

When Keith DeBlasio was sent to federal prison for fraud in Baltimore more than 10 years ago, the judge never said anything about a death sentence.

But that's what DeBlasio feels he was handed. Transferred to FCI Milan in Michigan, he was raped repeatedly by his HIV-positive cellmate and now he is HIV positive, too, he said.

To DeBlasio, a new federal report on sexual abuse in prisons and juvenile corrections houses doesn't come close to getting at the full scope of the problem.

The first-ever national report on prison rape shows low numbers of allegations in Maryland, but DeBlasio, now a volunteer prisoner-rights advocate in West Virginia, and others caution that the problem is likely much larger than the report indicates.

The report, released by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics last week as part of the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, showed 8,210 allegations of rape or abuse in federal, state, local and other jails nationwide last year and 79 in Maryland, the majority in juvenile facilities.

Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernarelli said the state is working with federal officials to reduce prison rape, but he pointed out that the report showed relatively few allegations in prisons here.

"Every reported instance of sexual assault is immediately handled by medical personnel as well as our Internal Investigative Unit detectives," Vernarelli wrote in an e-mail. "I must say, however, that 'reported' incidents are not large in number, as you saw in the study. If [the unit] finds an assault has occurred, they pursue prosecution, usually through the state's attorney's office in the jurisdiction where the crime allegedly occurred."

The department does not yet have a formal policy on handling prison rape, Vernarelli wrote.

Only what's reported

As the report's authors point out, the low numbers are unreliable, said Jaime Fellner, U.S. program director at Human Rights Watch, an organization that has done research on prison rape.

"This report only reflects figures regarding sexual violence reported by correctional authorities, meaning reported by them" to the bureau, Fellner said. "Those numbers, as the authors of this report note, are no doubt a significant undercount of incidents of abuse."

The report's authors write that many inmates won't report sexual abuse because they are embarrassed, don't trust prison authorities or fear reprisal.

"In the everyday world, in the free world, the majority of rapes go unreported, so you can imagine in the prison environment, there's fear of retaliation, there's fear of being called a snitch," DeBlasio said. "Rape is almost never reported in a prison environment."

DeBlasio's attacker was a member of the Vice Lords prison gang, and he feared that reporting it would invite the wrath of other gang members. The first time DeBlasio was raped, other Vice Lords were standing close by with knives hidden down their pants, he said.

In fact, DeBlasio never reported the abuse; it only came out when another of the man's victims talked, he said.

By next year, the bureau will have developed a self-administered questionnaire for inmates to report sexual abuse, which should provide better numbers, the authors of the report write. (One of the companies involved in creating the questionnaires is Rockville-based Westat Inc.)

That's a measure praised by prisoner-rights advocates.

"Our feeling is that the only way to estimate the true prevalence of prisoner rape is to speak to the inmates themselves," said Lovisa Stannow, acting executive director of the group Stop Prisoner Rape.

Juvenile protocol in place

But for now, Fellner said it's "hard to believe" that there were only, for example, five allegations of staff sexual misconduct in Maryland's state and federal prisons. One of those allegations was substantiated, one was unsubstantiated and three were unfounded, the report shows.

"Either Maryland has the most unbelievably well-run prisons and well-run jails in which there are no incidents, hardly any incidents, or we have a problem in that very few allegations are ever reaching the authorities," Fellner said.

She pointed out that Maryland's number of allegations by juveniles is much higher than the number of allegations by adult inmates, but there's no indication that juvenile sex abuse is more of a problem here than adult sex abuse. Juvenile facilities have long been required to report all allegations of abuse, so their numbers are probably more reliable, she said.

Of the 79 allegations in Maryland, 58 were by juveniles. Of those, 16 were allegations of abuse by other juveniles in the system. In Maryland, as in many other states, even consensual underage sex behind bars is classified as abuse.

LaWanda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Juvenile Services, said the department has an established protocol for dealing with abuse allegations, including calling in the state police and Child Protective Services and, if necessary, removing the child from the facility.

Other findings of the report include:

  • Of the 8,200 allegations nationwide, almost 2,100 were substantiated, though Fellner said most prisons don't have rape kits, so they may not be able to test for physical evidence when an inmate claims abuse.
  • In state prisons nationwide, 67 percent of perpetrators of staff sexual misconduct were female.
  • Ninety percent of staff perpetrators nationwide were fired or referred for prosecution.

Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor Fred Berlin, director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, said the lack of knowledge about the magnitude of the prison rape problem is analogous to how little people knew about child sexual abuse 30 years ago. Once people started learning how prevalent child sex abuse was, they were shocked. "I think the reason for the federal effort is the recognition that there is a huge problem out there," he said.

Highlights of the report

  • Survey selected more than 2,700 correctional facilities holding 79 percent of all adults and juveniles in custody.
  • 8,210 allegations of sexual violence reported nationwide in 2004 (including nonconsensual sexual acts, abusive sexual contact, staff sexual misconduct, staff sexual harassment).
  • Correctional authorities substantiated 2,090 incidents of sexual violence, 30 percent of completed investigations:

# Rate per 1,000 inmates

National estimate by BJS 2,090 0.94

Total reported 1,213 0.69

Prisons - Federal 47 0.31

Prisons - State 611 0.52

Local jails 210 0.63

Private prisons/jails 17 0.55

State juv. systems 212 5.15

Local/private juvenile 108 4.97

Other facilities 8 0.82

Source: DoJ Bureau of Justice Statistics