Robert Gavin, Cruel, but not unusual, The Times Union, March 28, 2010
ALBANY -- Behind the walls of Great Meadow Correctional Facility, less than 75 miles from the state Capitol, an old stereotype remains hauntingly true: Go to prison, risk rape.
The maximum-security lockup in Washington County ranked fifth worst nationwide in the most recent study of the prevalence of sexual assault in U.S. prisons -- and convicted criminals housed there were only part of the problem.
Similar sex abuse -- including staff members victimizing inmates -- was discovered at higher-than-national levels from the Albany County jail to Rikers Island to facilities in Texas. And as recently as Dec. 30, court papers allege a convicted sex offender assaulted a fellow inmate in the Schenectady County jail by grabbing him and forcing a finger into his rectum.
For victims, some of whom shared their stories with the Times Union, such incidents leave behind a life of scars.
"I deserved to be punished," said T.J. Parsell, 49, of Long Island, who at 17 was gang-raped inside a Michigan jailhouse after trying to rob a photo shop with a toy gun in 1978. "I didn't deserve what I got when I went there."
Now, the federal government is implementing new standards for prisons, jails and other lockups in what advocates and the Department of Justice call a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to end sex abuse behind bars.
"This is something that I think needs to be done, not tomorrow, but yesterday," Attorney General Eric Holder told the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies on March 16.
New standards were proposed last June by a commission formed after passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003. Facilities will have one year to implement the final recommendations, due this year and subject to federal approval.
"Protecting prisoners from sexual abuse remains a challenge in correctional facilities across the country," the commission for the new law stated in its 259-page report. "Too often, in what should be secure environments, men, women and children are raped or abused by other incarcerated individuals and corrections staff."
The alarming rank of Great Meadow, on Route 22 in Comstock, came after the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics surveyed inmates in hundreds of state and federal prisons, as well as county lockups, for the new law.
Nationwide, the rate of inmates reporting sexual victimization within a prior 12-month period was 4.5 percent. At Great Meadow it was 11.3 percent. That placed it among prisons in Florida, Nebraska, Indiana, California and Texas, where the Estelle Unit state prison topped the list at 15.7 percent.
Great Meadow, where 268 inmates were surveyed, showed considerably less inmate-on-inmate abuse (3 percent) than the staff-on-inmate rate (9.3 percent), though both exceeded national rates. And while 1 percent of its victims surveyed reported being "physically forced" by another inmate, that figure was 6 percent in attacks by members of its staff. In turn, 2.8 percent of victims surveyed reported being "pressured" by other inmates, while 6.3 reported it from staffers.
Wende in Erie County (6.4 percent) and Elmira correctional facilities (4.8 percent) also exceeded the national rate. Arthur Kill Correctional Facility in Staten Island (4.2 percent) and Greene Correctional Facility (2.1) dipped below it.
Erik Kriss, a spokesman for the state Department of Correctional Services, attributed the Great Meadow numbers to pat-and-frisk searches to find contraband.
"Any claim that sexual abuse is pervasive in New York's prisons is patently false," he said.
The Albany County jail was one of nine local jails sampled in New York in 2007. Inmates were asked about experiences during the prior six months. While the Albany jail numbers showed no reports of abuse among inmates, sexual victimization of inmates by staff members (3.1 percent) exceeded the national rate (2 percent). Most of those incidents did not involve force or pressure, according to the survey.
Even if an inmate is willing to have sex, it is illegal: Prisoners cannot consent to sex with correction staff, given their position of power.
Albany County Sheriff James Campbell, whose office operates the jail, said he knew of five alleged incidents in 2006, three in 2008 and none reported last year.
An Albany County correction sergeant was convicted of sodomy after he admitted sex with a female inmate in 2002. In 2006, a Rensselaer County jail officer was convicted of rape for intimidating two female inmates to meet his sex demands.
Dori Lewis, senior supervising attorney with the Prisoners Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan, represents several women who said they were victimized in New York prisons and were deterred from reporting the incidents. In one case a plaintiff accurately described to prison officials an officer who had shaved his genital area, she said, but no action was taken because her client lacked physical proof of the sexual content.
The case was tossed because federal law requires prisoners to exhaust available administrative remedies at their prisons before filing a lawsuit. Changing the law was among the new standards proposed by the Prison Rape Elimination Act commission.
The commission also recommends prisons to be subject to rigorous independent auditing at least every three years; use of video to prevent sex abuse; have internal ways for inmates to report abuse; housing changes and transfers for victims; sanctions for any inmates or staffers engaging in abuse; no hiring of anyone with a criminal history of sex offense, domestic violence or stalking; and heightened protection for vulnerable detainees. The commission report said the young, mentally disabled, those with small stature and lack of experience in jails, and gay prisoners all appear to be at increased risk of sexual abuse by other prisoners.
The PREA commission recommended that facilities have a written agreement with outside law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to investigate allegations of sex abuse -- whether by inmates or staffers. The report said prison sex assaults are rarely prosecuted.
In the recent Schenectady case, 48-year-old William Banks was indicted on a felony sex abuse charge, but such cases appear to be exceptions.
State prison officials reported, between 2004 and 2006, roughly a dozen convictions of a sexual nature involving staff members and inmates. Two incidents in 2004 involved nonconsensual sex between inmates that resulted in discipline; there was one similar incident in 2005 and two in 2006, one of which led to a conviction. District attorneys declined to prosecute two alleged incidents in 2004.
In Washington County, where Great Meadow is located, District Attorney Kevin Kortright did not return multiple calls for comment.
Donn Rowe, president of the New York State Correction Officers and Police Benevolent Association, questioned the accuracy of the survey. "Some of the people making these allegations are not in the situation they're in for being honest people," he said.
Some inmates have said they believe prison rape, as reported in the media, is greatly exaggerated. One man who served more than 30 years in New York state prisons told the Times Union that sex offenders were ostracized and spat upon behind bars. He said he knew of only one rape in his entire prison experience.
But other inmates, in prisons across the country, tell a far different story. Among those who shared their stories with the Times Union was Troy Erik Isaac, reached through Just Detention International, a Washington, D.C., organization formerly known as Stop Prisoner Rape.
At 12, Isaac said he was forced to perform oral sex on gang members in his Southern California juvenile hall and later was raped while in state prison.
"It turned into, 'This is what I want, this is what you are going to give me whether you like it or not," said the now-36-year-old Isaac.
Parsell, now 49, said he was attacked inside the Michigan jailhouse within his first 24 hours in detention.
He now lives in East Hampton, Long Island, where he told the Times Union he became successful in the software industry. But after 20 years of therapy, Parsell said the assault still haunts him.
"Being gang-raped in prison," he said, "has scarred me in ways that can't be seen or imagined."