Prison rape: Sheriff compares it to UFO sightings, other "cultural delusions"

Corrections officials are understandably defensive about a controversial Bureau of Justice Statistics survey that indicates a high incidence of prisoner sexual abuse in their facilities. But is that any reason for jail bosses to claim that inmates are concocting fake stories of prison rape in order to get cookies, or that the whole phenomenon is a "cultural delusion" on a par with spotting a flying saucer?

Both theories were proposed last week by detention officials testifying before a U.S. Department of Justice panel reviewing the issue, according to this account from Just Detention International, a group that's campaigned for prison-rape prevention and prosecution. The particular operations under scrutiny had much higher-than-average reports of sexual abuse and harassment in the national (and anonymous) BJS survey of prisons and jails conducted in 2008 and 2009.

A turnkey from Louisiana's Orleans Parish Prison implied that his inmates were exaggerating abuse reports in order to get bags of cookies offered to survey participants by researchers. And Bill Benedict, the sheriff of Washington's Clallam County, suggested that his jail ended up high on the list of jails with rape reports because sexual assault behind bars is a murky, much-mythologized and largely undocumented "cultural delusion" -- kind of like UFO sightings.

But a BJS researcher countered that there was "no difference in average rates of sexual victimization" in jails where cookies were offered to survey participants and those that didn't get cookies. Officials from Florida's Miami-Dade Pre-Trial Detention Center, which ranked uncomfortably high for rape in the survey, also testified but didn't dispute the survey findings, addressing instead the steps they're taking to deal with the problem.

And it is a problem. The lack of official documentation may have something to do with corrections authorities' reluctance to admit how little protection they provide to their most vulnerable inmates -- like openly gay ex-prisoner Scott Howard, whose extortion and exploitation at the hands of a white supremacist gang in the Colorado Department of Corrections was the subject of my February feature "The Devil's Playground."

Howard, whose story went viral soon after that article was published, tried repeatedly to report his plight to prison officials; he was called a "drama queen" and a liar and told to shut up. After his release, he settled a civil rights lawsuit against the DOC for $165,000. That's a lot of cookies, and part of the ongoing toll of administrators' refusal to admit that sexual assault does indeed occur in their institutions, even if it's seldom officially reported and almost never prosecuted.

"Yesterday's widely diverging testimony is a good reminder both of how far we've come, and how far we still have to go," Just Detention International noted in its report. The organization's live updates from the hearings can be found on Twitter under the hashtag #jailrapehrng.

More from our News archive: "Prison rape: New resource center focuses on improving prosecution, prevention."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast