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Chilling Findings in Report on Prison Sex Abuse

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Prisoners don't command much respect. Those who steal, rape and murder make life miserable for the rest of us and should pay for their actions.

But when society puts them away, they must be treated decently, humanely and in accordance with the law.

So a report from the Justice Department's inspector general was particularly troubling because it detailed crimes by an unexpected group: federal employees who work in the prisons.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine calls it "staff sexual abuse of federal inmates." The document paints a disgusting picture of federal employees who have disgraced themselves, shamed their professions and dishonored the federal service.

As my colleague Carrie Johnson reported Friday, the inspector general found that allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct had more than doubled from fiscal year 2001 through 2008.

"These allegations increased at a faster rate than either the growth in the prisoner population or the number of BOP [Bureau of Prisons] staff," the IG's report says. "BOP officials told us they believe this increase is due to the BOP's efforts during this time period to educate and encourage staff and inmates to report abuse."

Fine also was critical of the U.S. Marshals Service, which takes charge of prisoners arrested by all federal agencies and is responsible for their housing and transportation from the time they are taken into custody until they are released or sent to prison.

But the Marshals Service doesn't even have a sexual abuse prevention program, according to Fine: "USMS has not established a zero-tolerance standard for staff sexual abuse . . . and it has not taken action to make the deterrence of staff sexual abuse a management priority."

To their credit, the bureau and the Marshals Service didn't try to duck Fine's conclusions. They agreed with almost every finding. A letter from bureau Director Harley G. Lappin says the agency is "fully committed to a zero-tolerance standard for the incidence of staff sexual abuse." The Marshals Service said it is developing a zero-tolerance policy and will require all employees to complete an online training course.

It is not uncommon for officials to explain away bad news, as the bureau did, with its own efforts to better report it. And any effort to educate employees and encourage better reporting is appreciated as much as it is overdue.

But there's also the possibility that the problem is even worse than the report indicates. The practice of segregating victims and transferring them to another facility for their safety "can reduce their willingness to report and to cooperate in investigations," the inspector general found.

Workers accused of sexual abuse aren't just the guards; in fact, they aren't at the top of the list. Allegations were spread across 15 of 16 occupational categories -- only those in human resources did not make this list of ill repute. Those with the highest rates of allegations were in food services, recreation, education and vocational training.

Another interesting finding: Despite the image of big, mean male prisoners, female staffers were most often accused of abusing male inmates, not females. And females were accused of sexual abuse at rates higher than they were represented in the prison workforce. They made up about 27 percent of the workforce during the years of the study, but accounted for 30 to 39 percent of the allegations.

"While male staff members were frequently accused of abusive sexual contact with inmates of the same gender, female staff members were rarely accused of abusive sexual contact with inmates of the same gender," the report says.

Prison safety, particularly for the employees, has long been a concern for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents many of them. But the union offers no defense of the behavior detailed in the report.

The union supports "zero tolerance" of sexual abuse by staffers because it "compromises the safety and security" of prisoners and other staff members, said Alan Kadrofske, a legislative representative for the union.

His comments rang in concert with a statement from Inspector General Fine, who said, "Sexual abuse of inmates in BOP facilities has severe consequences for victims and undermines the safety and security of federal prisons. We believe the Department should take additional steps to further improve its efforts to address this serious problem."

Both agree that the prison bureau needs to do a better job of training its staff.

"BOP's staff training on the prevention of sexual abuse was outdated, and the BOP has not established effective goals and oversight mechanisms for its sexual abuse prevention program," Fine's report said. And educational materials provided to prisoners regarding staff sexual misconduct were so poorly written that they could be "misinterpreted to mean that prisoners themselves could be disciplined if they reported abuse committed by staff."

Yet, that's a bit better, perhaps, than the Marshals Service, whose prisoners aren't even told how to report staff sexual abuse.

The report can be found on the OIG's Web site at http://www.usdoj.gov/oig under "What's New."

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