CHARLIE FRAGO : Sexual violence in prison studiedIncrease in allegations reported ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE. Jul 31, 2006

Allegations of sexual violence rose in Arkansas prisons last year, mirroring a nationwide trend, according to a federal study released Sunday.

State prison officials attributed the increase to recent initiatives making it easier for inmates to report sexual violence and a greater willingness to punish perpetrators.

Across the country, federal, state and local corrections officials reported 6,241 allegations in prisons and jails in 2005, an equivalent of 2.8 allegations per 1,000 inmates, up from 2.5 per 1,000 inmates in 2004.

Fewer allegations were substantiated in 2005 than in the previous year — 0.40 substantiated occurrences of sexual violence per 1,000 inmates, compared with 0.55 substantiated cases per 1,000 inmates in 2004.

About 15 percent of allegations were substantiated in 2005.

Arkansas’ state and federal prisons reported 38 allegations — up from 28 last year. Six occurrences were substantiated, an increase over last year’s two substantiated cases.

The increase “has a lot to do with our efforts” to send the message that sexual violence won’t be tolerated in the Department of Correction, said Dina Tyler, prison spokesman.

“If sex is going on, we want to know about it and we’ll take care of it,” she said.

Correction Department officials attended the annual prosecutor’s association conference to make a presentation on the Prison Rape Elimination Act, federal legislation passed in 2003 that encourages more vigorous prosecution of sex crimes within correctional facilities, Tyler said.

If a correctional officer has sex with an inmate, even consensual sex, it can be prosecuted as a felony carrying a sentence of up to 10 years. Inmates are also barred from engaging in sex in prison.

Since the law went into effect, anonymous hot lines have been installed in each unit for inmates to report sexual violence and the staff has been trained in compliance, Tyler said.

The law also authorized an annual survey of sexual violence to be conducted by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The study released Sunday was the second to be completed. Next year, anonymous surveys of inmates and recently paroled sex offenders will be added to the sample, a step hailed by prison advocates who say it will present a fuller portrait of what actually happens behind bars.

This year’s study, compiled from administrative records, has “inherent limitations,” said Katherine Hall-Martinez, co-executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a Los Angeles-based advocacy organization.

“We take these numbers with a grain of salt. We’re extremely pleased that another report has been released, but this data is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

The drop in substantiated occurrences of sexual violence is an example of how difficult it is to gather evidence in a correctional facility and the tendency of many correctional administrators to discount inmates’ statements about what happened, said Hall-Martinez.

But the increase in allegations shows that the federal law is starting to have “an important trickledown” effect, she said.

The study also examined records from six Arkansas jails — the Pulaski, Craighead, Drew and Dallas county jails and the Brinkley and Warren city jails. Drew County’s jail was the only facility to report any allegations, and a staff sexual harassment allegation at that facility proved unfounded, according to the report.

Researchers split the allegations into four categories ranging from sexual harassment to sexual assault. Nationwide, 38 percent of allegations involved staff-initiated sexual misconduct against inmates; 35 percent involved inmate-against inmate nonconsensual sexual acts; 17 percent were acts of staff-involved sexual harassment against inmates; and 10 percent were inmate-involved abusive sexual contacts against other inmates.

Victims suffered physical injuries in 15 percent of the substantiated cases. More than two-thirds of the cases occurred in the victim’s cell or living area.