Michael Montgomery, Prison officials dispute study on sexual violence behind bars, California Watch Blog, September 15, 2010

State prison officials are disputing findings from a new federal study that identified two California prisons as having some of the highest rates of sexual violence in the nation.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics ranked two California adult men’s prisons among six others nationwide as “high rate” facilities based on the prevalence of “inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization.”

The report gave the California Medical Facility a prevalence rate of 5.8 percent and Pleasant Valley State Prison a rate of 5.5 percent. The national rate for adult male inmates was 1.9 percent.

The Pleasant Valley facility had 5,097 inmates at the time of the survey, and the California Medical Facility had 3,067 inmates.

The study was based on a survey of 81,500 inmates about incidents that occurred in the previous 12 months (or since their admission to the facility if less than 12 months). The survey was conducted nationally from October 2008 to December 2009.

Debra Herndon, an associate director at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said the report vastly overstated the scale of sexual violence in the two prisons.

“Our position here is that it (the report) didn’t accurately reflect the true numbers,” she said.

Instead, Herndon pointed to the department’s analysis of its own data, which found a total of 13 incidents of sexual violence in the two facilities during 2008 and 2009.

“Taking a look at all our numbers, I think we’re doing a pretty good job,” she said, citing California’s early adoption of legislation aimed at ending sexual violence behind bars. “We have a zero-tolerance approach.”

But some experts were puzzled by the state’s apparent use of official data to challenge findings from the Bureau of Justice Statistics report, which relied on an extensive confidential survey of inmates.

“It is widely accepted that official reports of sexual violence in prison do not reflect the reality of how many assaults are occurring,” said Linda McFarlane, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights group that is developing pilot programs in three California prisons. ”Sexual violence is one of the most under-reported crimes in society. Barriers for reporting are even greater in prison.”

Allen Beck, lead author of the Bureau of Justice Statistics study, said the data showed remarkable consistency among survey responses and the findings closely cohered with an earlier federal report on sexual violence in America’s prisons.

“You don’t have to take this data as the gold standard of truth, but you should take it seriously to look more closely at what is happening in some of these facilities,” he said. “The whole idea is to talk directly to inmates to shed light on the dark side of sexual violence.”

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