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Dark Corners 

In Louisiana's maligned prison system, prisoner rape of mentally ill inmates may be the dirtiest secret of all.

Louisiana's mental health system must be 'drastically overhauled" to protect people who should be patients from becoming prison inmates. But until that happens, jailers need help in protecting a growing population of mentally ill prisoners from assault, including rape, by other inmates, Louisiana officials told a federal panel in New Orleans recently. Continued public indifference to the dark corners of the criminal justice system " particularly the rape of inmates " ultimately endangers society, says Michele Deitch, an adjunct professor of criminal justice policy at the University of Texas. Deitch testified before the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in New Orleans recently.

'Prison rape has long been joked about or people assume it's an inevitable part of prison life or "they deserve whatever they get' behind bars," she says. Deitch once served as a court-appointed monitor of a Texas prison-reform lawsuit.

'If people get sexually abused while incarcerated, they come out angry and (some) with sexually transmitted diseases," she says. 'What happens in prison doesn't stay in prison."

The scope of sexual violence in America's jails and prisons is unclear. The commission hopes that mandatory reporting, as required by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, will yield more precise statistics and lead to prevention. The commission is charged with developing zero-tolerance national standards for enhancing the detection, prevention, reduction and punishment of sexual violence behind bars. In addition to inmate attacks on each other, the commission also wants to halt staff-on-inmate attacks and rapes.

During commission hearings, one panel member grilled Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman about his office's admitted failure to provide the U.S. Department of Justice with three years' worth of data on all complaints of staff-on-inmate sexual violence.

Ironically, as Gusman defended his office's efforts to rebuild post-Katrina, Orleans Parish District Attorney Keva Landrum's prosecutors advanced two separate cases of inmate-on-inmate rape brought by the sheriff's investigators " including one that's being investigated as a homicide.

Authorities have identified certain characteristics of incarcerated people who are at risk for sexual violence: effeminate and gay men, the young, offenders who are physically small in stature, the developmentally disabled and mentally ill men and women.

In written testimony submitted to the commission under oath, Maj. Marty Dufrene of the Lafourche Parish Sheriff Greg Webre's office, related the harrowing jail stay of a deranged 30-year-old woman.

There is no mention of sexual assault in the narrative. It's a cautionary tale that vividly illustrates the vulnerability of the mentally ill behind bars and the Kafkaesque challenges facing both corrections and mental health professionals in post-Katrina Louisiana.

Arrested on a hit-and-run driving charge, the woman was jailed at the 245-bed Lafourche Parish Detention Center, Maj. Dufrene testified. After several days of compliant confinement, the woman's behavior 'escalated" to 'extreme rage and combativeness," Dufrene testified. 'She struck and scratched correctional officers while they tried to subdue her. She was transported to the local hospital's mental health section and she was placed on medication, which helped her behavior."

She then returned to jail.

'At some point, she stopped taking her medication and began to disrobe and crawl around her cell on all fours," the major said. 'At times, she was discovered nude and lying in a fetal position under her bunk. This type of behavior may expose anyone to verbal or mental abuse from other offenders. She stopped eating her meals and was discovered consuming her own feces."

She required constant attention from the detention center staff, who feared she might hurt herself or others, Dufrene continued. 'Employees tried to coax her into taking her medicine and eating her food. Repeated overnight trips to the hospital did not help."

Her condition deteriorated. She was hospitalized again and fed intravenously.

A warden on the corrections staff found several members of the woman's family, who were scattered around the state. The ad hoc group teamed up with the local district attorney's office, a judge and regional mental health officials to identify three treatment facilities that might take the woman.

The major recalls contacting one of the hospitals. 'I was informed she was 171st on a waiting list. Already in disbelief, I was then informed that only 16 beds were available. The other [facilities] were very much the same. The demand for mental health care and bed space far exceeds the available supply, especially since hurricanes Katrina and Rita."

Jails appear to have become the mental health 'treatment" of last resort simply because they are more accessible and their beds more available. Unfortunately, incarceration often exacerbates the condition of mentally ill offenders, who are vulnerable to attack by others, Dufrene testified. 'Other offenders may target them as an easy mark, to exploit commissary items from them or to inflict physical harm, including sexual assault."

Existing deterrents " including jail surveillance cameras and physical patrols by trained deputies " do not suffice, he testified. 'Most offenders may be able to defend themselves from sexual assault or at least report an incident for investigation," Dufrene said. 'However, we need a more concerted effort to help those who may not be able to defend themselves or [who] may not be competent to report any incident of abuse."

Small jails such as the one in Lafourche need more funding for adequate detention areas, mental health services and training for staff. 'Frequently, the (mentally ill) offender is arrested for a crime which may be attributed to their mental health issues and they become "stuck' in the system," Dufrene noted. 'While incarcerated, they are unable to receive the treatment they need and tend to acquire additional charges resulting from their violent outbursts.

'Mentally ill offenders are unable to satisfy their court obligations due to mental incompetence and unable to enter a mental health facility due to criminal charges and the availability of bed space " thus creating a "merry-go-round' of obscure options or opportunities to exit the criminal justice system and enter mental care."

State and local mental health advocates say they can recall no allegations of sexual abuse by jailed mentally ill patients since Katrina. 'I haven't received any complaints, but there is a disproportionate number of people with mental illnesses in the prisons," says Jenny Jantze, president of the Louisiana chapter of the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill.

The nonprofit advocacy group conducts crisis intervention training in the New Orleans area to give police alternatives to jailing the mentally ill.

Pat Nolan, a member of the Prison Rape Elimination Commission, told a Dec. 6 hearing that nationwide, mentally ill offenders are 'very often" victims of sexual assault behind bars. Moreover, the many medical and security needs of the mentally ill also make prisons 'difficult to manage," the commissioner said.

The public needs to take a closer look at redirecting the mentally ill to treatment facilities instead of incarceration, he added. 'Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we fill them with people we're just mad at," said Nolan, an executive with Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Some of the sharpest questioning in the second day of the two-day hearing came from Commissioner Brenda V. Smith, a law professor at American University. Smith grilled Sheriff Gusman, the city's jailer, about information missing from three years of reports on sexual violence that his office filed, as required by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.

Gusman, who was elected sheriff in 2004, testified that investigations supported three of the four inmate complaints of sexual assault in 2006. However, the sheriff said that his investigators could substantiate none of the seven allegations of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence made in 2005.

But Commissioner Smith, who also directs a U.S. Department of Justice project investigating correctional staff misconduct with jailed offenders, noted that the sheriff's report to the feds omitted categories for staff-on-inmate sexual misconduct. 'The data collection effort has been going on for at least three years, so I'm surprised the [staff misconduct] was not collected," Brown said. 'As a commissioner, I'm concerned the information did not include those different kinds of data sets."

Gusman said reporting staff-on-inmate sexual assaults was one of the areas of the mandatory federal reporting law 'we are trying to get better at." Under further questioning by Brown, Gusman said he was unaware of any such complaints against his staff. 'Cases involving employees are pursued as vigorously as those perpetrated by other inmates," the sheriff said, in written testimony to the Commission. 'Maximal legal and administrative actions are pursued."

Asked if he was confident of figures reported by his office " given the absence of staff misconduct data " Gusman said: 'No, I'm not willing to put my head on the chopping block for those numbers."

The sheriff added that his office has suffered 'tremendous staff turnover because of the disaster." Six of the 11 original jail facilities have been restored since the storm. The current inmate population of 2,400 is six times larger than it was just a year ago. Before Katrina swamped the city on Aug. 29, 2005, the city jails held more than 6,000 inmates. The sheriff reopened one jail on Oct. 17, 2005. Criminal District Court reopened in June 2006.

Asked what steps his office takes to encourage inmates to report sexual violence, Gusman said all six jails have a 'confidential grievance procedure" that go directly to the warden of each facility. He added that the prison has a full-time psychiatrist, two part-time psychiatrists and nurses who monitor the medical needs of the inmates on the prison tiers.

Whenever an inmate complains of a sexual assault, the sheriff's Special Investigations Division immediately begins an investigation, Gusman later told Gambit Weekly. He also outlined the procedure for treating prison rape victims:

Nurses who are specially trained in sexual assault examinations treat each alleged victim at University Hospital. Bodily fluids and other evidence are placed in a 'rape kit" for investigators. The alleged victim is provided mental health counseling and tested for sexually transmitted diseases. The alleged victim is then transferred to the 10th floor of the House of Detention, but does not lose any visiting or commissary privileges. The alleged assailant is transferred to a different 'safe" housing unit, pending the investigation.

'Each case is investigated thoroughly and disciplinary action pursued," Gusman testified. 'Legal prosecution is pursued aggressively." Internal discipline is meted out where necessary, the sheriff said. 'At Orleans Parish Prison, we take all allegations of sexual assault very seriously," Gusman told the Commission in his written testimony.

'They do the investigation," Dalton Savwoir Jr., a spokesperson for the District Attorney's Office, says of the sheriff's office, 'and any substantiated investigation needs to be turned over to us."

Savwoir says the DA's office has accepted two of the three inmate-on-inmate sexual assaults brought by the sheriff's investigators. The status of a third rape case brought last year was unknown at press time. According to information Gusman submitted to the City Council during a recent budget hearing, another inmate filed a sexual assault complaint in 2007, but 'recanted" after examination at a hospital.

New Orleans jailers are not alone in dealing with problems of sexual violence. In earlier testimony, members of the Prison Rape Elimination Commission reported hearing 'chilling testimony" about a halfway-house officer in New Hampshire who extorted sexual favors from more than a dozen women by threatening to return them to prison if they did not submit to his demands.

Eugenie Powers, director of Louisiana's office of Probation and Parole, testified that staff members who commit sexual misconduct with offenders will be turned over to local authorities 'even if they resign their position and no longer work for Probation and Parole." Adds Powers, who has more than 30 years of corrections experience: 'We want to send a strong message to all that this type of behavior will not be tolerated."

Sexual misconduct also will be addressed in Probation & Parole officer training programs, tentatively scheduled to begin in early 2008.

More than 2 million men and women are incarcerated in the United States. Another 5 million are in halfway houses and other correctional programs. According to a report released in August by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, prisoners reported more than 6,500 allegations of sexual assault nationwide in 2006. That is a rate of 2.9 claims per 1,000 prisoners.

'There are lot of prisoner advocates who would claim that this is a vast underreporting of the problem," says Prof. Deitch, of the University of Texas. 'Correction officials would argue that the vast majority of these inmate allegations are not sustained. Everyone agrees that prison rape is an issue that needs to be addressed, but not everyone agrees on the scope of the problem."

The Prison Rape Elimination Commission notes that allegations of sexual violence behind bars have increased 21 percent since the Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed, rising from 5,386 in 2004 to 6,528 in 2006. In an Aug. 17 statement, the Commission insisted the Justice Department statistics underestimate the 'prevalence of the problem."

'Like victims in the community, many victims in custody do not report incidents of sexual violence because they are embarrassed, fear reprisal by other inmates or by staff, or because of the "code of silence' that exists in correctional settings for both inmates and staff," the Commission stated.

In 2006, 56 percent of all allegations of sexual violence reported to authorities were deemed 'unsubstantiated." Another 29 percent were classified as 'unfounded." 'These statistics are troubling and raise questions about whether many allegations of sexual violence are not investigated with sufficient thoroughness to determine whether the claims are meritorious," the Commission continued. 'Further, the report does not indicate the criteria by which prison officials determine whether allegations were "unsubstantiated' or "unfounded.' Many incidents are not "substantiated' because the only evidence available to administrators is the word of the inmate against the word of the alleged perpetrator."

The Commission also expressed dismay at the report's finding that 57 percent of incidents of sexual contact between prisoners and staff members 'appeared to be willing."

'Consent is a complex matter in the correctional environment. Every state has laws that make it a crime for staff to have sex with inmates. It is true that prisoners may, in some instances, "agree' to sexual contact with prison officials in exchange for better jobs, to avoid being disciplined or for other reasons. Even absent explicit violence or threat of violence, a characterization of this conduct as "willing' takes the focus from the responsibility of correctional agencies, officials and staff and inappropriately places it on inmate behavior."

Congress estimates that 1 million inmates were sexually assaulted during the 20 years before President Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003. But that estimate is also highly debated, experts say.

Authorities, scholars and independent monitors of jails and prisons hope that the federal law's requirement of mandatory reporting of sexual violence will soon improve both the rate and the reliability of reporting. Experts are trying to train corrections officials around the country so there is uniform reporting of data. 'You really can't tell if the problem is worse in one state or another, or if they are just reporting incidents differently," Deitch says.

Jack Beck, director of monitoring for the watchdog Correctional Association of New York, testified that sexual violence in prison is being increasingly addressed because of the federal law's reporting requirements. Beck and other experts recommend increased scrutiny of prisons by grand juries, news media, prison ombudsmen and independent monitors " as well as increased accountability for how inmates are treated.

Sheriff Gusman has yet to establish the independent prison monitor he promised voters when he first won election as sheriff in 2004. He told a recent City Council budget hearing that rebuilding the storm-damaged infrastructure of the jail system is a higher priority at the moment. But he added that he is still committed to creating a monitor for the prison.

Outside oversight will not solve the problem of sexual assault in prisons, but it will let the public and correctional administrators know if the goal of 'safe and humane" correctional facilities is being met, Deitch says, adding that visits by outsiders act as an 'informal social control" on all prison misconduct. The consequences of prison sexual abuse for society include more mental health problems, increased cases of HIV/AIDS and more violence outside of prison once inmates are released.

'The testimony we heard this week in New Orleans reaffirms that sexual violence behind bars " whether staff-on-inmate or inmate-on-inmate " is a significant national problem," the commission stated at the conclusion of its hearings earlier this month.

Conservative U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) voiced similar sentiments on Sept. 4, 2003, after President Bush signed the prison rape reduction law that Sessions co-authored with U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). 'We both agree that punishment for a criminal defendant should be set by a judge and should not include sexual assault," Sessions said. 'It is time to put an end to prison rapes. This bill will help do that."

The federal commission created by the law will issue a draft report for public comment in the spring of 2008.

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