Shaun Hitlle, Sexual assaults behind bars difficult to prove, underreported, Lawrence Journal World, March 16, 2010
An inmate who reports a sexual assault gets labeled a “snitch,” is considered weak, and faces an increased likelihood of further assault.
It’s those fears that prevent inmates from reporting sexual abuse to officials, said Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a psychologist and former member of the National Prison Rape Commission.
“Underreporting is an incredible issue,” she said, adding that official reporting numbers are not “a reflection of reality.”
According to numbers from confidential surveys, inmates and juveniles in Kansas correctional facilities are sexually victimized far more often than is reported.
Statistics obtained through a Kansas open records request show an average of one sexual misconduct report for every 100 Kansas inmates each year. That number jumps to more than six reports for every 100 juveniles in state detention every year.
But surveys — administered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics — found a 5 percent victimization rate in a 2007 survey of a Kansas prison, and about a 15 percent rate in a 2009 survey of Kansas’ two juvenile facilities.
Despite the gap, Russ Jennings, commissioner of the Juvenile Justice Authority, said there are multiple reporting options for victims, such as confidential reporting hotlines and complaint drop boxes in living units.
“There’s really a wide-open door for reporting,” he said. “We would like for every incident or concern to be reported.”
Regardless of efforts to increase reporting, there’s pressure to stay silent about sexual abuse, said Roger Werholtz, Kansas secretary of corrections.
“There is a very strong subculture within prisons in particular that discourages reporting,” he said. “If you’re doing that, you’re a snitch.”
Difficult to prove
For those cases that do get reported in Kansas facilities, few are ever substantiated. Of the 477 total allegations of sexual misconduct in Kansas prisons and juvenile facilities during four-year periods, only 65 were substantiated.
Jennings said proving allegations is a difficult task and urged caution when looking at the low rates.
“Honesty is always an issue,” Jennings said. “Are the youth being truthful? Are the employees being truthful?”
Werholtz said investigators within prisons thoroughly investigate allegations, but are often left with a lack of evidence.
“We try to come up with the best conclusion as to what occurred,” he said. But “there’s no way to successfully discipline if you don’t have corroborating evidence.”
Advocates acknowledge the challenges in investigating sexual misconduct behind bars.
“Finding evidence is extremely difficult,” Struckman-Johnson said. “It often comes down to ‘he said, she said.’”
Confronting the issue
A first step in reducing sexual violence in corrections is raising awareness about the problem, something that has traditionally been an uphill battle, Struckman-Johnson said.
“In the past, this hasn’t been a priority,” she said. “Inmates don’t want to talk about it. Administrators don’t want to talk about it.”
But there are numerous reasons for the public to care about sexual assaults in prisons, said Linda McFarlane, deputy executive director for the prisoner rights advocacy organization Just Detention International.
Sexual assaults in prisons make facilities more dangerous for both inmates and staff, and violence of any type undermines rehabilitation.
“It makes it more dangerous for the community,” she said.
Aside from practical reasons, McFarlane said, there are moral reasons to support reforms.
“It’s not part of the punishment,” she said. “No one deserves this.”
Werholtz said that eliminating sexual abuse in Kansas prisons would require “a serious investment of resources both in terms of staff, technology and facility redesign.” But pumping more money into prisons in a down economy is not something he anticipates happening.
“I don’t think you’re going to see huge leaps forward in this state or any other state for quite a while,” he said.