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Women in Prison: GAO Report

Reviewed by Julia Lutsky

During the calendar years 1995 to 1998, approximately 31,400 women prisoners in the three largest U.S. jurisdictions made a total of 506 allegations of staff sexual misconduct; of these only 92, or 18 percent, were sustained. "Because many female [prisoners] may be reluctant or unwilling to report staff sexual misconduct and jurisdictions lack systematic data collection and analysis of reported allegations, the overall extent of staff-on-[prisoner] sexual misconduct in female prisons is largely unknown." This, from the June 1999 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report, Women in Prison,,Sexual Misconduct by Correctional Staff`; to Eleanor Holmes Norton, who had requested the report, puts the figures quoted in good perspective: clearly they do not represent the true situation. Norton is the District of Colombia's non voting Congressional Representative.

The report is based on information gathered primarily from these three jurisdictions representing almost forty percent of the approximately 80,000 women prisoners in the United States at the end of 1998: the Bureau of Prisons (BOP; 9,200), the California Department of Corrections (CDC; 11,500) and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ; 10,700). Also included are the 320 prisoners in the District of Columbia Department of Corrections (DCDOC); the period covered for DCDOC was, however, 11 months shorter: December, 1995 through June, 1998. In the three largest jurisdictions the 506 sustained allegations resulted in staff resignations or disciplinary actions ranging from suspensions to criminal prosecution. Two jurisdictions did not supply information for all the types of allegations. That so few allegations were sustained was attributed to lack of evidence which, in turn, point to the reticence of women prisoners to cooperate for fear of retaliation.

The TDCJ had a majority of the sustained allegations: 48 of the 92 for the period studied and the highest number of allegations sustained in comparison to the number made (48 of 153 or 31 percent). The CDC reported 22 sustained allegations of a total of 117. The BOP reported both the largest number of allegations and the smallest percent of allegations sustained: 236 allegations were made of which 22, or only nine percent, were sustained. Only the BOP, however, reported allegations resulting in criminal prosecutions. Fourteen allegations resulted in criminal prosecutions with convictions carrying sentences ranging from 19 years of incarceration to three months of home confinement.

The DCDOC had the highest number of allegations proportionate to the number of prisoners (34.5%) with a concomitant low number of allegations sustained (11 percent). A 1993 civil suit filed in federal court [see PLN, December, 1997] charging sexual misconduct by correctional staff resulted in the DCDOC's being required to develop a sexual misconduct policy. Its problems were not solved, however, since four more law suits were filed as a result of a striptease performed by women prisoners for male correctional staff in 1995. At the time of the GAO report these were the only pending civil cases reported for the District of Columbia.

During the period covered for the three largest jurisdictions, the BOP reported 14 civil lawsuits four had been closed or dismissed, one of them with a settlement of $500,000 for three women; three had been settled and seven were still pending at the time of the report. California reported two civil suits during the period, one of which ended when the state agreed to a payment of $73,000. The other is still pending. Texas reported four lawsuits of which three remain open. One was dismissed.

This report is available from the Government Accounting Office. The first copy is free; subsequent copies are $2 apiece. Contact the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Accounting Office, PO Box 37050, Washington, D.C. 20013 or call (202) 512-6000. You may fax a request to (202) 512-6001.

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