Andy Davis, State women’s prison No. 9 in abuse claims study says 10% alleged sexual contact, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, August 27, 2010
Out of 167 randomly selected state and federal prisons nationwide, Arkansas’ McPherson Unit for women ranked No. 9 in the number of inmates who
reported they had been “sexually victimized,” meaning they had sexual contact with staff members, or were coerced or forced by other inmates to
engage in sexual activity, according to a survey report released Thursday.
The survey was conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics under a mandate by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed by Congress in 2003.
Nationwide, the survey estimated that 4.4 percent of prison inmates had been sexually victimized in the past year, down from the 4.5 percent found in the previous report, issued in 2007.
On the basis of a survey of 224 inmates at the McPherson Unit in Newport, the report estimated that 10.3 percent of the women had been abused. That included 7.7
percent of inmates who said they had had unwanted sexual contact with other inmates, either through physical force or coercion, and 4.4 percent who said they
had consensual or nonconsensual sexual contact with staff members. At the time of the survey, the prison held 745 inmates.
Nationally, the rate was 2.1 percent for unwanted contact among inmates and 2.8 percent for contact with staff members. For women’s prisons nationwide, the rate of sexual
contact among inmates was 4.8 percent. The rate of contact involving staff members was 2.2 percent.
The survey also included responses from 118 men and women inmates at the Diagnostic Unit in Pine Bluff. The report estimated that 4.8 percent of the inmates at that unit
had been sexually victimized in the past 12 months. That included 1.9 percent who had unwanted contact with inmates, and 2.9 percent who had sexual contact with staff members.
The report defines sexual victimization as including coerced or forced sex, or inmates touching another’s buttocks, thighs, breasts or genitals, and any similar activity
between staff members and inmates, whether coerced or not.
It was the second survey of inmates by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on prison rape. The 2007 report included surveys of the Diagnostic Unit and Jefferson County jail,
which at the time was operated by the state Correction Department. In that survey, 0.9 percent of inmates at the Diagnostic Unit and 3.5 percent of inmates at the jail
Dina Tyler, a spokesman for the state Department of Correction, described Arkansas as being “about in the middle on the numbers” in Thursday’s report.
She said department officials were glad that the prisons were not among those singled out in the report as having the highest rates.
“We certainly didn’t want to have our name up there in that chart that said these are the worst ones,” Tyler said. “We would have preferred to be in that chart that said these are the best.”
She added that the report is based on inmates’ statements that may or may not be true
For instance, in 2008, the department received 20 reports of sexual misconduct involving staff members and inmates, but only substantiated six of them. The department
operates 20 prisons and work-release centers across the state.
“Just because 20 people said there was an alien in the front yard doesn’t mean that little green men from Mars were there,” Tyler said.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics also collects information on rapes and other sexual abuse reported to prison officials. The most recent report, issued in 2007, found that Arkansas inmates filed 3.24 reports of abuse per 1,000 inmates, compared with a national rate of 3.75 reports per 1,000 inmates.
The estimated national rates were based on survey responses from 32,029 of the 1.5 million inmates in federal and state prisons. The surveys were conducted between October 2008 and March 2009. The national survey had a margin of error of 0.4 percent.
The prison with the highest victimization rate nationwide was the Bayview Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in New York, where 14.6 percent of inmates reported being victimized.
In Arkansas, 4.7 percent of the McPherson Unit inmates and 1.9 percent of Diagnostic Unit inmates said they had been physically forced to have sexual contact with other inmates, compared with a national rate of 1.3 percent.
The report also said 2.3 percent of McPherson inmates and 0.7 percent of the Diagnostic Unit inmates reported that staff members had forced them to have sexual contact as compared with a national rate of 1 percent.
For 4.5 percent of McPherson Unit inmates and 4.8 percent of Diagnostic Unit inmates, the abuse was “nonconsensual sexual acts,” involving oral, anal or vaginal contact. For 5.7 percent of McPherson Unit inmates, the abuse involved “abusive sexual contacts,” such as touching of the buttocks, thighs or genitals. No inmates at the Diagnostic Unit reported abuse in that category.
The report also has survey results from jails, including the Garland County jail, where 5.8 percent of inmates reported being sexually victimized, and the Faulkner County jail, which had a victimization rate of 3.5 percent. The jails in Drew and Sharp counties were also surveyed, but inmates at those jails did not report any abuse. The national rate for jails was 3.1 percent.
Under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, officials from the three prisons nationwide that have the highest rates of inmates’ sexual abuse must testify at a public hearing before a panel of corrections experts. Officials with the two prisons that have the lowest rates of sexual abuse must also testify before the panel.
The report issued Thursday didn’t explicitly designate the prisons that have the highest overall rates, but it did list those that have the highest rates in separate categories of inmate-on-inmate contact, and contact involving inmates and staff members. Those singled out included prisons in New York, Texas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Wisconsin, Virginia and Missouri.
Thursday’s report comes as prison officials across the country await the issuance of national standards mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act for curbing sexual abuse. Attorney General Eric Holder in June missed a deadline for ratifying the standards and has not said when they will be issued.
A report commissioned by the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs found in June that the cost of implementing the standards in Arkansas prisons would be $12.6 million. That cost primarily is because the department would need to hire 300 more corrections officers to more closely supervise inmates and reduce the number of female guards supervising male inmates and vice versa.
Lovisa Stannow, director of the advocacy group Just Detention International, said the differences in rates among prisons shows that the sexual abuse can be prevented. For instance, she said, prison officials can separate vulnerable inmates from potential predators and train staff members to draw boundaries in their relationships with inmates.
“It’s really, really critical to recognize fully that no matter what crime someone might have committed, rape is not part of their penalty,” Stannow said.
Tyler said Arkansas has taken steps to curb abuse, including increasing training for staff members, establishing an inmate hot line to report sexual assaults and creating a “crisis response team” made up of counselors, chaplains and investigators to respond to reports of sexual abuse.
“Obviously, you want it to be zero,” Tyler said. “But especially on inmate to inmate, let’s be honest, it’s never going to be zero.”