JDI IN THE NEWS - 2008

Dane Schiller, The reality of prison rape remains difficult to research: Two-day hearing highlights some disparities in how often it occurs, Houston Chronicle, March 28, 2008.

Exactly who is getting raped in Texas prisons and why is a jailhouse whodunit that has state and federal officials looking somewhat sideways at each other.

During a two-day hearing that wrapped up in Houston on Friday, a Justice Department panel questioned wardens, guards and other prison officials over findings that Texas has among the nation's most dangerous prisons for the sexually vulnerable.

"We are all adults here and we're talking about a gritty subject, so feel free to be graphic," advised Steven McFarland, chairman of the two-person panel. "We're looking for what works and what doesn't," he said of ways to protect prisoners.

He was told victims tend to be younger, of slighter build and first-time offenders.

A recent federally mandated survey of many of the nation's prisons asked inmates to anonymously answer questions about rape.

Results suggested Texas prisoners were more likely to be raped than those in other states and far exceeded the number of claims prisoners filed in person with prison authorities.

"We're disappointed with the survey," said Nathaniel Quarterman, director of the correctional institutions division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "It is not matching up with our data."

Regardless of whether the state and federal governments agree on the number or rapes, more can be done, he said.

"I think even one rape is too much," Quarterman said.

The survey revealed rapes are much more common at some Texas prisons than others.

Difference in numbers

Those housed in the maximum-security Estelle Unit in Huntsville reported 278 instances of non-consensual sex acts per 1,000 inmates in the last year.

At the Rio Grande Valley's Lopez State Jail — generally a place for those serving less than two years for non-violent crimes — there were zero reported.

State officials said there were 210 cases of inmate-on-inmate sexual assault filed in 2006 from a population of about 155,000 Texas prisoners.

With their bosses, and their bosses' bosses looking on, prison employees repeatedly testified that worries about rape were out of proportion with the reality they see when walking cellblocks, showers, kitchens and other areas of prisons.

No prisoners testified at the hearing conducted on the South Texas College of Law campus.

McFarland, seemingly perplexed at times over how front-line prison staff said they were aware of so few rapes, rolled up his sleeves.

"Anybody drop the soap?" McFarland finally asked two ranking correctional officers as he sought to jar them into a discussion of attacks in the showers.

"No," came the answer.

Officers said while rape does occur, it is rare, and more rarely seen or heard.

There was an identical response when McFarland asked a veteran employee if she had any idea what new inmates fear most about going to prison.

Melissa Rothstein, a program director for Stop Prisoner Rape, a human-rights organization, said the hearing could have gone better for Texas.

"The defensiveness that they have had at this hearing has in some ways made it harder to see the good efforts they've made," she said of improvements in protecting prisoners.

Texas has better policies than many states, but it needs to do a better job implementing them, she said.

"Running a prison is a very hard job, and I think everybody knows that," she said.

John Moriarty, the inspector general for the prison system, oversees criminal investigations, including rapes.

He said his team faces the challenges of operating in a world of convicts, including some who falsely claim they've been sexually assaulted in order to reap the benefits afforded victims, such as being put in protected custody or transferred to a new cell.

"Just as in the free world, the burden or proof for a conviction in a criminal court is to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," he said.

'Everyone is out to hurt me'

Each claim is treated as a potential crime with investigators sealing off cells, gathering evidence such as clothing and questioning witnesses, he said.

Adding to the challenge, the average victim waited more than three months to report the crime, he said.

Still, prisoners call out for help, with Stop Prison Rape members saying a disproportionate number of letters it receives come from Texas.

The hand-scrawled letters are brutal.

"He covered my mouth and pinched my nostrils together while whispering how easy it would be to kill me," wrote one Texas inmate. "He then took (the) liberty."

Another prisoner said despite him testing positive for HIV, he still is regularly attacked.

"I am (raped) all the time, " he writes. "To me, everyone is out to hurt me."