Prisoners Report Increase In Rape By Prison Staff

New statistics by the U.S. Department of Justice show an increase in sexual abuse of prisoners by prison staff. Perhaps more surprisingly, the study finds that sexual misconduct by female employees of the prison system is happening at a disproportionate rate. Glenn Fine, the study's author, who serves as inspector general for the Department of Justice, explains why the numbers are rising.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, we want to go Behind Closed Doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters that are rarely discussed openly, often because of stigma or shame.

Previously on this program, we've talked about the issue of prison rape, about how in the movies and the popular imagination, the issue is often played for laughs, but it is no joke. And federal authorities renewed their efforts to fight these assaults in 2003 with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. A national commission this spring issued a new report with recommendations on how to reduce sexual abuse in prisons.

But now comes a new report by the Justice Department's own inspector general, which says that the reports of staff sexual abuse of prisoners actually rose from 2001 to 2008. Also, women make up 27 percent of federal prison officers that account for roughly a third of sexual misconduct allegations.

Here to talk more about these findings is the inspector general and the study's author, Glenn Fine. And before we begin, we do want to warn our listeners that some of the language in this conversation may not be appropriate for sensitive or younger listeners. And having said that, inspector general, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GLENN FINE (Inspector General, Department of Justice): My pleasure.

MARTIN: The Bureau of Prisons operates 115 prisons in 93 locations. And your report found that there were reports of abuse rising in all but one of these facilities. What do you make of this?

Mr. FINE: There are allegations in all of these facilities. I make that there are significant issues with regard to sexual abuse of inmates. Much of it is perpetrated by the use of force, threats or coercion, but there is no such thing as consensual sexual relations in a prison environment. There is an inherent difference in power and authority, and the inmates deserve to be treated in a safe and secure environment. And so, we believe that this is a significant problem that needs to be addressed.

MARTIN: One of the things I guess I'm wondering is that this study report covers - most of the period is after authorities had already turned their attention to this problem, as I said, in this Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003. So, I'm just curious why you think the reports of abuse are increasing? What do you make of that?

Mr. FINE: The Bureau of Prisons believes that the increase in allegations are partly because they have stressed attention on this problem and that inmates are more willing to make allegations of sexual abuse when they are abused. So, I think that's part of it.

I also think that it is a serious problem throughout the institutions and that we are focusing more attention on it as well. And so, there has been an increase in the number of prisoners and increase in the number of staff, but there has been a greater increase in the number of allegations. So I think it is an important problem, and that it is throughout the Bureau of Prisons system.

MARTIN: I noted that women make up 27 percent of officers, but they account for a third of sexual misconduct allegations. What do you make of that?

Mr. FINE: Many people think that it is only male correctional officers abusing female inmates. It is not that. It is all sorts of abuse. We find that in many cases, male inmates will have sexual relations with female officers and then try and corrupt those officers or extort those officers. So it needs to be deterred and prosecuted, regardless of the gender of who's involved.

MARTIN: Do you think that people still, even perhaps including staff members, and you just noted that because of the power imbalance, there is no such thing as a consensual sexual relationship, but I'm wondering if you think that there's still, say, an attitude problem: people just don't think it's a big deal.

Mr. FINE: I think to some extent, that is true. That some people minimize the problem and think that if it's consensual, people agree to it, then there's no problem. There cannot be agreement in that context, number one. It traumatizes the victim, the inmate in many cases, and just as important, it undermines the safety and security of the institution when there are sexual relations between an inmate and an officer.

For example, after the sexual relations occur, we have found many, many instances where the inmate will then ask for and extort the officer to bring in contraband into the institution, to say I want you to bring in a cell phone or drugs or money or even a weapon. And while the officer might initially say no, once they have engaged in those sexual relations with the inmate, the inmate can threaten to report them and can extort them to bring in this contraband. That affects everyone in the institution, not only those two but other inmates and other correctional officers.

MARTIN: Is that the more common scenario, rather than a violent imposition or the use of violence or physical coercion?

Mr. FINE: There are scenarios where the relations are obtained by force or threat of retaliation against the inmate, so that happens quite often. But it is also quite often that it is without force or threats being used, but again, there is no such thing as an equal relationship or the ability to consent within an institution.

MARTIN: I do want to mention that force is an issue, and I want to play a short clip of a conversation we had recently with a man named Garrett Cunningham. I want to emphasize he was a prisoner at a state institution in Texas, but he was interviewed as part of the work of that National Rape Elimination Commission. Garrett Cunningham gave testimony to the commission, and I just wanted to play a short clip of what he said.

Mr. GARRETT CUNNINGHAM: Almost on a daily basis, I had comments, sexual comments, made to me, and I was also sexually harassed during pat-searches for contraband items at least twice a day. He groped me during pat-searches. You know, he'd reach up and squeeze my groin, and I had complained about this to the assistant warden and the major on the unit, which they had told me this officer was just doing his job. And I had complained about it for months to the unit psychologist, you know, hoping to, you know, get out of that job assignment or get some help or something, and it did absolutely no good.

MARTIN: And now I want to play where he describes what happened to him with the same guard. I'd like to play that for you. Here it is.

Mr. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, I worked in an issue room, where offenders get their clean clothes, and an officer there had kept me back one weekend to work by myself. And that was the weekend that I was getting my clothes to get a shower when nobody else was around, and he came up from behind me and shoved me real hard, put handcuffs on me, behind my back, and had raped me.

MARTIN: This guard later was prosecuted. He was successfully prosecuted and convicted. The reason that he was able to successfully obtain a conviction is that he was able to somehow able to smuggle out or through the mail send out a piece of fabric with body fluid on it that offered evidence in this case.

But the reason I bring this up is that here's a person who tried to complain, but he was told to stay away from this person. And so I wanted to ask: What is to be done about this? How can something like this be addressed, where these are individuals who have no control over where they go, when they go and what they do?

Mr. FINE: When there are these instances, when there are allegations, we need to make sure that the inmates can report it, can report it in a safe and confidential manner, that the institution takes it seriously. We also need to make sure that when an inmate reports an allegation of sexual abuse, he or she is not put in solitary confinement automatically or necessarily moved or mistreated as a result of the allegation.

In addition, when these allegations are investigated, prosecutors need to take them seriously when there is evidence of sexual abuse sufficient to obtain a conviction that they take it to prosecution and that they do not minimize the importance of these very serious charges.

MARTIN: And finally, inspector general, as we mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, this is an issue which has been going on for so long, it's become part of the culture. I mean, it's a part of stand-up routines, it's a part of - people think it's funny. Do you really believe that it can be stopped?

Mr. FINE: It is not a joke. It is not funny. It's serious. It's serious for the victims. It's serious for the institution. It's serious for everyone who works in that institution. Now, I also want to make clear that in the Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, there are 36,000 employees, and this is not endemic to them. The vast, vast, vast majority of them are hardworking employees who do a good job in a difficult environment, but the ones who abuse their public trust need to be deterred and prosecuted from this - serious crimes that they are committing.

Do I think it can be completely stopped? No. Do I think that the Bureau of Prisons ought to have a zero-tolerance policy? Yes. And I think that the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice and the federal government ought to do all it can to minimize this very serious crime.

MARTIN: Were you surprised by the findings?

Mr. FINE: I don't know if I was surprised. In my job as the inspector general, I see a lot, but I do think that it is something that should be known and that the department and state institutions ought to do all it can to detect it and deter the crimes that are occurring.

MARTIN: Do you see any evidence that they are?

Mr. FINE: I think the Department of Justice is. I think they are taking it seriously. If you look in our report, they are prosecuting it at a higher rate. I think the Federal Bureau of Prisons have made some progress. I think that they are providing more training to their staff. I think they are taking it seriously. I just think more needs to be done.

MARTIN: Glenn Fine is the inspector general for the Department of Justice. He joined us from the Justice Department's offices in San Francisco. Mr. Fine, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. FINE: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, Melba Moore talks about her latest album and what's been going on in her life.

Ms. MELBA MOORE (Musician): One of the things that happens when you have really, really difficult challenges, you have to focus, and that's either going to make you or break you, and you really have to choose, and I chose optimism. I chose joy. I chose life.

MARTIN: That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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