Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Most TDCJ sex assault victims housed in just a few units, most victimized by staff

Here are a few highlights from a recent report on sexual assault in TDCJ put out by the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault and the Prison Justice League.

Their report represents a significant bit of research. They examined federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data on sexual assault in Texas prisons and sent a voluntary, confidential survey to prisoners who had self-reported sexual assaults at some point during their incarceration. This research was supplemented by correspondence with inmates who responded to the survey.

A disproportionate number (41.2 percent) of inmate sexual assault victims self-identified as LGBTQ, the survey found, confirming a pattern where inmates deemed gay or even just effeminate may be more likely to become victims.

Survey respondents reported sexual assaults at 15 prison units across the state with the majority of reports coming from three units: Estelle (Huntsville), Robertson (Abilene), and Allred (Iowa Park). A whopping 58.9 percent of respondents said they were assaulted by a staff member, which jibes with past investigations into sexual assault at TDCJ. "In 2014, 766 allegations of staff-on-offender sexual abuse and sexual harassment incidents were reported to the PREA Ombudsman by unit-level TDCJ staff." They cited a 2015 Marshall Project report showing that, nearly half the time, local prosecutors refuse to pursue cases involving staff-on-inmate sexual abuse. When they do, "Of the 126 staff members convicted of sexual misconduct or assault, only nine were sentenced to serve time."

Just as there's an argument for creating a division at the Attorney General to prosecute police misconduct to take decisions out of the hands of local prosecutors, there's an equally good argument to be made for doing the same thing when prosecuting TDCJ guards. Elected, rural prosecutors understandably are reticent to go after workers at the largest employer in town, and may feel more in common with TDCJ staff than their victims. That's a recipe for justice denied.

The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act has created new tracking and record keeping to shine a light on prison rape, the report found, but the Ombudsman function is notably underdeveloped. TDCJ employs 152 people in its Safe Prisons/PREA management offices around the state, but only one Ombudsman and an assistant to process 1,041 allegations of inmate-on-inmate alleged sexual abuse incidents across 109 facilities in 2013, and 1,467 in 2014. That's simply not enough warm bodies to perform the job properly.

The report included the following recommendations:
  • Establish independent oversight to evaluate TDCJ facilities. (Paging Michele Deitch!)
  • Halt the practice of placing sexual assault victims in solitary confinement "without thoroughly exhausting alternative protective measures."
  • Increase resources to the PREA Ombudsman office.
  • Improve the offender grievance system with better training for staff and accountability for failing to respond to victims.
  • Involve outside agencies in assessing PREA compliance.


Mary Sue Molnar said...

Kudos to Erica, Elia, and TAASA for taking an in-depth look at this issue. Good job!

SOFAQ said...

Another home run for GRITS FOR BREAKFAST! posted here:

Doug Smith said...

Great Work Erica and Elia! The report definitely underscores the need for independent oversight. While the OIG does not report to TDCJ, the PREA Ombudsman does. More importantly, the Safe Prisons Officers report to Wardens, and are under pressure to maintain a dose of skepticism when it comes to reports of staff on inmate sexual assault. This is why we need a mechanism for incarcerated individuals to report assault to someone outside the chain of command. A truly independent Ombudsman can look at conditions and staff culture that increase the likelihood of assault; and unit-based efforts to discourage investigations against staff members can be quickly identified.
I do caution about making the statement, "TDCJ has failed to stem sexual assault." The culture prior to PREA required incarcerated individuals to "handle their own business." Reports of assault or fear of assault were ignored. When we read that reports increased 30 percent over a full-year period and that prosecutions are increasing, especially against staff, it demonstrates a change in culture and practice. That said, the narratives offered in the report are horrifying. One individual had to wait 72 hours for medical respond, only to have the Warden laugh at him. Putting the data aside, it only takes one case like this to effectively neutralize the impact of PREA in Texas.
Also, as someone who was incarcerated and who served as a Peer Educator inside prison, I want to remind people of the courage it takes for a man or woman in white to put themselves out there and ask their peers to report sexual assault. Such actions fly in the face of generations of prison culture - largely supported by the institution itself - that has silenced victims of sexual assault. I will remain forever in awe of those first groups of men and women who challenged this culture. Their efforts are probably having the greatest impact, putting predatory staff and individuals on notice that incarcerated people will report sexual assault and misconduct.
Thank you, Erica, Elia, and TAASA for amplifying the voices of the voiceless! I look forward to working you to create independent oversight over all correctional institutions in Texas.

Bill Habern said...

I totally agree with the comments of Mr. Smith. For an offender to report these events and then having to deal with internal affairs investigations is a heavy burden for an inmate. After 45 years of dealing with the prison system our law firm thinks long and hard before we even consider dealing with them. We have found they cannot be trusted. This is an area of prison life no administrator wants to admit is real. Proving it is real presents a difficult problem for prosecutors because normally there is a lack of physical evidence to substantial the allegations made by the inmate. HOWEVER, this is not just a problem in Texas. It is a national prison issue.

BIll Habern
Houston Texas

Anonymous said...

A clarification and a question..

First the clarification. Most local Texas prosecutors are not involved in the prosecution of prison crimes be they against staff or other inmates. These cases are routinely handled by the Texas Special Prosecution Unit (SPU) which operates primarily out of Huntsville but has prosecutor offices statewide. While legally speaking local DA's do have the jurisdiction to prosecute prison cases, hardly any do so due to lack of resources, lack of expertise in the area of prison crimes, etc. The SPU is funded by the legislature each biennium and does prosecute sexual assault cases.

The question. It's not clear to me to what extent the report includes the office of Violation of the Civil Rights of a Person in Custody (Penal Code Sec. 39.04) in its analysis of inmate/correctional officer sexual abuse. Does it? The report does note the State Jail felony punishment range for this offense so presumably the data regarding this charge was included in the assessment of the frequency with which staff gets prosecuted for this sexual offense. In this regard, I would simply note that the vast majority of these crimes are based upon consensual sexual contact between a male inmate and a female correctional officer which does meet the elements of this charge. For obviously reasons, most of these relationships are dealt with administratively as opposed to resulting in a criminal prosecution.

Anonymous said...

I suppose it's possible but I find it difficult to believe. I mean, if a prison guard raped me, when I got out I'd pay him and his family a visit, and it would make international news for years. I assume most men are like myself and would act similarly, yet I've never heard of this happening and I am very well read and have been all of my adult life.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:55 wrote: "I assume most men are like myself"

I wouldn't even assume YOU are as you describe. Lots of anonymous internet tough guys out there. If you don't have the courage to use your name publicly in blog comments, what would lead us to believe you'd engage in violent revenge that would make headlines for years? Rape victims exacting revenge on their abusers is rare. Happens sometimes, but rare.

Anonymous said...

Prison guards are just high school educated football players, bullies, and sadists with a uniform. I do acknowledge they have a very difficult and potentially violent job but I always wonder why anyone would want to be a prison guard......

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Mainly jobs, 3:59. Plenty of average people take those jobs bc they live in a rural area where prisons are the largest employer. The profession may draw some bullies, etc., but the bulk of staff are just people who needed a job near X small town.

Skorchrock said...

Sounds to me like 86,000 should be 86, thousands more that have been ignored. Where's Justice when you need it?

Skorchrock said...

Sounds to me like 86,000 should be 86, thousands more that have been ignored. Where's Justice when you need it?