Jonah Owen Lamb, Federal survey: Valley State Prison for Women sex assault rate high, Merced Sun Star, September 3, 2009

In 2007, VSPW only had 11 allegations of sexual victimization reported. Six were nonconsensual sexual acts between inmates. Four of those allegations were unsubstantiated, one was unfounded and one is still being investigated. The other six allegations accused staff of sexual misconduct. Two of those allegations were unfounded, and the other four are under investigation.

If a staff member has had sexual contact with inmates, he can be fired and face up to a year in prison. Consensual sex between inmates is against the law and carries up to an additional year in jail.

Paige Harrison, one of the Justice Department's statisticians who did the survey, said that while VSPW was among the top 10 prisons surveyed, it's necessary to parse the numbers to understand the difference, for instance, between the more violent sexual acts and the less violent ones.

"What we found, generally speaking, is that when women facilities come out higher, and they often do, it's largely because of unwanted touching between the women that drive the numbers higher as opposed to the more violent invasive penetrative acts that we think of in terms of rape," she said.

The issues were made more complicated, said Harrison, because the survey had to rate kinds of sexual assault -- a subjective notion.

Aside from the issues mentioned by Harrison, the survey noted that any numbers about sexual assault are less than definitive.

Previous studies of inmate sexual victimization relied on information provided by prison administrators, according to the survey. While some inmates may over-report such incidents, others may be reluctant for fear of retaliation. According to the survey, in 2006 one-quarter of all allegations in state and federal facilities were unfounded.

But what the survey and others like it may do is change perceptions of sexual violence in prisons.

Popular impressions suggest that male prisons are more violent in general, female prisons less so. But prison reform advocates say that the 2008 survey points out that sexual assault and victimization are more a result of institutional failure rather than a gender-based prevalence for sexual victimization.

"I think these surveys have shown that sexual violence in prisons doesn't happen in isolation -- it happens in troubled facilities," said Melissa Rothstein, a program director with Just Detention, a prisoner advocacy group based in Los Angeles.

Rothstein added that studies like the 2008 survey are revealing that patterns of violence and abuse are less gender-based than commonly thought. "In general, there has always been this assumption that particularly inmate-on-inmate violence is more prevalent in men's facilities," she said.

Aside from gender misconception, Rothstein said that surveys like the recent one can help prison administrators know what's happening behind their walls and move to prevent it. Until recently, there were no federal standards when it came to sexual victimization, and administrators couldn't be sued for what they didn't know, she said. Now the environment is changing, she added.

Mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the survey is part of a process creating the first national standards for dealing with sexual assault in prisons, Rothstein said. (The survey for 2008 will be released in October.)

While the standards are welcome, said Rothstein, they aren't groundbreaking: they are rules that already should have been in place.

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