Sexual misconduct at Denver women's prison: Why is the claimed rate so high?

A new government report on the rate of sexual victimization in America's jails and prisons lists the Denver Women's Correctional Facility as having the highest rate of sexual assault and misconduct by staff of any lockup in the nation -- four times the national average, in fact. That figure is dismaying state corrections officials, already reeling from parole snafus and the murder of prison chief Tom Clements.

It may also be more than slightly misleading.

The Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics bases that claim on a survey of more than 92,000 inmates housed in state and federal jails and prisons. The overall rate of prisoners who claim to have been subjected to sexual assault or misconduct hovers around 4 percent; for incidents perpetrated by staff rather than other inmates, it's around 2.4 percent. Yet the Denver women's prison ranks at the top of a list of "high-risk" hoosegows with a staff-on-inmate reporting rate of 10.7 percent, based on responses to the survey from 160 inmates there.

Yet there are reasons to approach that staggering figure with some caution. It's true that Denver Women's has had some ugly lawsuits over the years, stemming from lax supervision of staff and DOC's "gender-neutral" staffing policies, which often put male guards in charge of female prisoners. One case a few years ago involved a correctional officer, David Christensen, who was a known suspect in several bizarre incidents of stalking and shoe fetishism but continued to work the night shift at Denver Women's -- until he was arrested, charged and convicted of raping a female inmate in a storage closet.

True, too, that there's always been a disturbing gulf between the incredibly low number of officially reported and "confirmed" sexual assaults within DOC and the much higher figures produced by anonymous surveys of inmates, as pointed out in my 2011 account of one openly gay inmate's ordeal of extortion and sexual assault, "The Devil's Playground." You could take the view, as some corrections honchos do, that the inmates are just making it all up to get free cookies from researchers, or you could deduce that quite possibly the vast majority of sex crimes behind bars go unreported.

At the same time, there's no denying that DOC has taken steps to discourage sexual exploitation of inmates at the women's prison, from aggressively investigating officers accused of misconduct to upgrading surveillance and eliminating some of the blind spots and closets where predators like Christensen operated. It's also significant that the 10.7 percent figure refers not just to assaults but "misconduct," a much more ambiguous term. At least some of the complaints at the prison can be blamed on the DOC's piggishly intrusive policy of conducting degrading "labia lift" searches on female inmates after visiting sessions, a practice that ended only after the ACLU threatened a lawsuit. The government survey was conducted a year after the policy was changed, but memories of that brilliant procedure may have influenced answers to questions about staff engaging in "inappropriate" sexual conduct.

That one in ten women at DWCF feel sexually abused in some way is no real surprise. Despite some reform efforts within DOC, there's still no policy to keep male correctional officers from being in charge of female prisoners. (Although same-sex misconduct is also an issue, it's statistically lower.) You don't need to be a student of Chained Heat to see the situation as a set-up for trouble all around.

More from our News archive: "'Labia lift' strip searches: ACLU action gooses prison officials into changing degrading policy."