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DOJ Releases Report on Staff Sexual Abuse of Federal Prisoners

A report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Justice concerning sexual abuse of federal prisoners by prison staff found that such claims were widespread and had more than doubled during the eight-year span reviewed by the report. The OIG called the Bureau of Prison’s efforts to address sexual abuse and misconduct “mixed,” found the U.S. Marshals Service’s prevention policies insufficient, and listed 21 recommendations to deter further abuse.

The OIG report found that sexual abuse allegations had occurred at all but one of the Bureau of Prisons’ 93 facilities, including 15 of 16 occupational categories. The majority of the incidents involved criminal sexual abuse rather than administrative sexual misconduct. Further, many of the claims were also related to allegations of other serious crimes; nearly 40% of the employees who were prosecuted were convicted of additional charges, which implicated safety and security concerns at federal prisons.

A total of 1,585 allegations of staff sexual abuse and misconduct were reported during the eight-year period under review, from FY 2001 through FY 2008. The number of sexual abuse allegations rose 104 percent during that time period, from 76 in the first year to 155 in the last, while the number of sexual misconduct allegations increased by 130 percent over the same period, from 33 to 76. The rise in allegations outpaced the growth in both prison population and staff. While the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) contended that the increase was due to improved efforts to encourage reporting of sexual abuse, the OIG did not agree, finding that the increase in reported abuse and misconduct was more likely related to insufficient policies, programs, training and oversight.

The OIG noted that any sexual conduct or relationships between employees and prisoners was a crime, citing the imbalance of power that exists between the two groups. The report acknowledged that prisoners who are victimized by staff sexual abuse “may suffer physical pain, fear, humiliation, degradation, and desperation.” The OIG further found that female prisoners were often at greater risk, having frequently experienced sexual abuse in their past. Among the recommendations included in the report was a suggestion that all victims receive both medical and psychological assessments.

In addition to the impact of staff sexual abuse and misconduct on prisoners, the safety and security issues were of great concern to the OIG. The report noted that staff who engaged in sexual relations with prisoners were more likely to “neglect professional duties” and to “subvert their prison’s security procedures” in the process. They were also more likely to be susceptible to prisoners’ extortion demands in terms of smuggling contraband, accepting bribes, lying to investigators and committing other offenses.

Several disturbing incidents were highlighted in the report. In one, a male BOP guard agreed to pay $5,000 to a female prisoner with whom he had been engaging in sexual acts to arrange the murder of his wife. In another incident, a Unit Manager had manipulated the BOP’s database in order to remove information about a prisoner’s gang affiliation and to enter a transfer request, which otherwise would not have been granted, that allowed the prisoner to move from a high-security prison to a low-security facility. Other examples included guards leaving their assigned posts in order to engage in sexual relations with prisoners.

In one particularly egregious incident, a group of guards at a BOP institution in Florida had been supplying prisoners with contraband in return for sexual favors. They were also allowing prisoners to leave their cells without authorization and providing other BOP employees with keys to staff offices where they would have sex with prisoners. Six people were indicted in 2006; however, when federal agents arrived at the facility to arrest them, one of the guards opened fire – using a firearm he had smuggled into the prison – killing OIG Special Agent William Sentner and wounding a BOP lieutenant. [See: PLN, Oct. 2006, p.12; Aug. 2007, p.38]. Sentner was posthumously awarded a Medal of Valor by former President Bush in October 2008.

The OIG report noted a number of differences based on the gender of staff members accused of sexual abuse. For example, male employees were much more likely than female staff members to be the subject of allegations involving prisoners of the same gender. However, female employees were the subject of sexual misconduct allegations at a higher rate than their representation in the workforce. Further, female staff were often treated more leniently than their male counterparts.

Statistics cited by the report indicated that, while the most frequent sex abuse allegations against male staff members involved female prisoners (35%), the proportion of allegations involving prisoners of the same gender was considerably higher (32%) than it was for female staff (5%). While women accounted for only 26.5% of the BOP’s total workforce, they were the subject of between 30% and 39% of the allegations reported annually, according to the report. Nearly 6% of all female employees were the subject of allegations of sexual misconduct, compared to 4% of all male staff members. Addressing the disproportionately high number of allegations involving female staff was among the recommendations made by the OIG.

However, while female employees were involved in such a high percentage of the incidents alleged during the time under review, the report also found they were less likely to be prosecuted, less likely to receive prison time (19% compared to 50% for male staff), and that when sentenced they received less time than their male counterparts (a median time of 6 months vs. 12, and a maximum sentence of 21 months vs. 120).

When questioned, Assistant U.S. Attorneys, BOP staff and OIG Special Agents stated that judges and juries often ignored the statutory provision that consent is not a defense in staff sexual misconduct cases, and that the U.S. Attorney’s Office often declined to prosecute such cases out of concern they would not be able to demonstrate criminal intent. The report noted there was a “common perception” that female staff members were not capable of abusing male prisoners, and that they were manipulated into engaging in sexual misconduct.

In one case, a judge rejected a recommended sentence and sentenced a female employee to probation only, referring to her as an “incredibly vulnerable victim.” However, one Assistant U.S. Attorney from the Middle District of Florida likened staff-on-prisoner sexual abuse to statutory rape, stating, “The law has nothing to do with consent” in such cases.

The OIG was particularly critical of the U.S. Marshals Service when it came to dealing with staff sexual abuse issues. The report noted that despite a provision in the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 requiring that all correctional and law enforcement authorities – including the U.S. Marshals – adopt a zero-tolerance position concerning sexual abuse, no protocols had yet been established. In its response to the report’s recommendations, the Marshals contended that their current policies were sufficient. The OIG disagreed, stating that specific policies related to prevention, detection and investigation of staff sexual abuse must be implemented.

Among the other recommendations in the report was seeking alternatives to automatically segregating and transferring prisoners who were sexually victimized by staff, which the OIG believed discouraged reporting as such actions were viewed as punitive. Additional recommendations included updated staff training to reflect changes in the law and to focus on gender-specific issues, and increased oversight of prevention, detection and investigation programs and policies, plus periodic reviews. The OIG also recommended increasing the time provided for training on staff sexual abuse issues and the amount of time that Special Investigator Supervisors spend in their positions, to ensure they develop the proper amount of experience and skills to conduct investigations.

While the BOP, U.S. Marshals and U.S. Attorneys Office agreed with nearly all of the OIG’s proposed recommendations, the BOP did not agree that setting a national goal for reducing staff sexual abuse was appropriate, stating it would give the impression that a lesser number of such cases was acceptable. Or, perhaps, federal prison officials simply don’t want to draw attention to the embarrassing fact that staff-on-prisoner sexual misconduct not only persists but has been increasing.

PLN has extensively reported on the topic of sexual abuse by guards and other prison staff. [See, e.g., PLN, March 2010, p.22; May 2009, p.1; Aug. 2006, p.1].

Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, Report No. I-2009-004 (Sept. 2009).

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