INDIANAPOLIS -- Corrections officials say they’ve spent a decade working to reduce sexual assaults in state prisons and local jails, but their efforts aren’t enough to satisfy the federal government.
Late last week, Gov. Mike Pence told the U.S. Justice Department the state won’t meet a deadline to certify that all prisons and county jails comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.
The major sticking point is money. The state needs an estimated $20 million -- another $4.5 million for counties -- to add the staff and equipment required by the law.
“This would require a redirection of millions of tax dollars currently supporting other critical needs for Indiana,” Pence said in a May 15 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
His decision may cost the state and local governments about $350,000 a year in federal corrections funds as a penalty for failing to comply with the law.
But that loss pales in comparison to the price of meeting the Justice Department’s standards. According to the Federal Register, a county would spend about $50,000 to upgrade its jail to comply.
“The goal is worthy but the costs are impossible to meet,” said Steve Luce, head of the Indiana Sheriff’s Association, whose members oversee the state’s 92 county jails.
The law would require the state to increase staffing at four juvenile prison facilities to prevent sexual assaults, costing about $5.4 million for up to 120 additional guards.
One of the costliest measures prohibits “cross-gender viewing,” and requires that inmates be allowed to do things like shower and change out of view of guards of the opposite sex.
“The remedy is to hire more staff and erect more barriers, but that takes money,” said Luce. “This is another unfunded mandate from the federal government.”
The law’s advocates dispute that contention. They argue the federal government has spent $40 million to help states come into compliance with the law and that prisons and jails will have until 2017 to put the new standards in place before any financial penalties would kick in.
“A lot of money has already been invested and it’s still not clear what states are doing with the money and how much closer we are to decreasing the number of prison rapes and assaults,” said Carmen Daugherty, policy director for the Campaign for Youth Justice, a non-profit that advocates for juvenile justice reform.
Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003 with strong bipartisan support. It requires institutions that receive federal money to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual violence behind bars and use rigorous tactics to prevent it. Among other measures, it requires the screening of inmates to separate predators from potential victims, and requires prisons and jails to provide multiple channels for inmates to report sexual abuse, including allowing them to report abuse anonymously.
But these rules for implementation of the 2003 weren’t finished until June 2012, and standards for checking compliance in state facilities weren't done until August 2013.
The delay has caused problems. States, including Indiana, increased efforts to reduce sexual assault of inmates after the law passed but now fall short of the new federal requirements. The rules cover 128 pages and include 52 detailed standards that every facility must meet.
Of Indiana’s two-dozen state prisons, only eight are certified as complying with the law. That includes just one of the state’s four juvenile detention facilities.
Bryan Pearson, who oversees compliance for the state Department of Correction, said a focus on reducing sexual assaults in prisons and jails started in 2003 and intensified when the Justice Department reported seven years later that nearly a third of youths in state juvenile prisons said they’d been sexually abused while in custody.
Prison officials questioned those findings but still accelerated efforts to reduce sexual assault and to encourage inmates to report it. The results are difficult to measure. Less than one percent of adult prison inmates in Indiana have reported abuse to officials, though Pearson acknowledged the numbers may be low because of victims’ reluctance to report abuse.
In 2012 -- the latest year available -- there were 31 substantiated cases of sexual abuse of adults and juveniles in the state prisons. There were 32 substantiated cases in 2011.
The most recent federal survey found that 4 percent of all state and federal prison inmates in the U.S. reported being sexually victimized by another inmate or a staff member in 2011 -- which comes out to over 87,000 victims of sexual assault in a single year.
Pearson said the numbers don’t tell the full story. “There’s been a cultural change in our prisons,” he said. “Before we were reactionary, responding to reports of assault. Now we’re proactive.”
Indiana isn’t alone in its decision to opt out of compliance with the federal law. Last month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry informed the Justice Department that his state wouldn’t comply with what he called a “counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome and costly regulatory mess.”
Pence’s language was more constrained but just as critical. “There is little empirical data showing these (federal) standards to be effective,” he wrote.
Like Perry, he urged Holder to give states more discretion to implement their own policies and practices to prevent sexual assault of inmates.
The Justice Department has yet to release information on the number of governors who met the May 15 deadline to report compliance with the law. The Department has until September to release the information.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org