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Presence of Prison Rape in Utah Denied

Early in 1996 Utah's Legislature mandated that state prison hospitals achieve national accreditation. Consequently, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) was given a three-day review of Utah prison medical records and a tour of Utah prisons, including interviews with prisoners and staff. Accreditation is based on a multiplicity of factors and if, upon review, a sufficient combination of them reflect substandard conditions, it is not granted.

The review consists largely of "self reported" information, however, according to NCCHC President Edward A. Harrison, only a "sampling of medical records" is consulted. Not surprisingly, therefore, not a single case of rape or sexual abuse was found. Accordingly, in June of 1996, the NCCHC accredited the state's Draper and Gunnison prison hospitals.

"They absolutely are lying," says Salt Lake City Attorney Ross Anderson. "They don't want the public to know what's going on in the prisons."

Anderson represented the mother of a mentally ill prisoner who died as a result of being strapped into a restraining chair. Prisoners, ex prisoners and attorneys confirm Anderson's accusation, according to Greg Burton writing in the Salt Lake Tribune last November. "What's going on says a group of former and current [prisoners], is a struggle to survive in a culture of abuse."

Perhaps the commission is short handed, for documents obtained under the state's Government Records Access and Management Act show approximately ten investigations of sexual assault each year at the prisons; in 1996 some 15 sexual assaults were investigated at Draper and Gunnison. Even Utah's Corrections director, H.L. Haun found it difficult to believe the reported absence of sexual assaults and has promised to look into the matter.

Did Haun not know that one prisoner, Ricardo Rodriguez, was actually convicted of forcible sexual abuse in March of 1996? And that for this attack Rodriguez received one to fifteen years added to his sentence? Any reference to Rodriguez' attack was conveniently omitted from the data the state presented to the commission.

Prison clinical service administrator Dale Schiapaanboord disagreed with the NCCHC report, "I remember the claim of [no sexual assaults] being an issue-- raising eyebrows in our own department." Most cases of rape, he noted, are not handled at the prison hospital but are referred to the University of Utah Medical Center. As a consequence they would not appear during a computer search of prison hospital records.

Robert Jones, outgoing prison medical director, is inclined to believe the commission's report however because, he says, "most [prisoners] fear the consequences of reporting." This has a ring of truth until one realizes that, in addition to his duties as Utah prisons medical director, Jones also worked part-time for the NCCHC, analyzing other state prison hospitals seeking accreditation. He was one of the team that assisted at the June 1996 tour and review. As Utah's prison medical director it is hardly credible for Jones to assert that he was unaware of the Rodriguez assault--or of the other 10 or 15 cases of sexual abuse investigated each year in that state's prisons.

Attorney Anderson points out that "what we breed in our prisons is basically moral anarchy. We seem to do everything we can to desensitize [prisoners], and then we expect when they get out they'll be upstanding citizens." A few prisoners control a system dealing in drugs, gambling and sex, with all the violence that combination implies. Often those with life sentences feel they have nothing to lose.

Precisely because prison abuse is so widespread the Utah administration has devised a classification system to keep particularly aggressive prisoners from being closeted with the most vulnerable. The inevitable miscalculation can be disastrous: A prisoner faced with inescapable rape has few options: to submit and remain silent or to submit and speak out. There is ample reason to fear speaking out, however, as outgoing prison medical director Jones rightly noted. Such behavior may subject the prisoner to further brutalization.

Edward Boyce, who reported being sexually abused by Rodríguez in the March 1996 incident, received six months of isolation: "protective custody," the administration called it. Those who speak out may also suffer the retaliation of other prisoners. And finally, to add insult to injury, in all likelihood their cases will not be prosecuted. As one deputy District Attorney put it, "Most juries don't get enamored with prisoners--most juries believe in their heart of hearts that those people are out there because they deserve it."

As one prisoner who had suffered sexual assault wrote, "... the District Attorney refused to pick up the case. Why? Am I not a human being because I'm a convicted felon?"

The Salt Lake Tribune , 9 November 1997; Bureau of Justice Statistics publications

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