NECN.com Sept. 7
by John Hanna
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Sexual misconduct and abuse of inmates at Kansas’ prison for women is “rampant throughout the facility” and persisted even as federal officials investigated problems at the facility, according to a U.S. Justice Department report released Thursday.
The department’s Civil Rights Division concluded that Kansas failed to adequately deal with problems at the Topeka Correctional Facility after the National Institute of Corrections recommended more than two dozen changes in January 2010 and the prison’s top administrator was reassigned. The report also cited a shortage of female officers and said the prison’s policies and staffing are inadequate.
Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, immediately sought to assign blame for the problems to former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who left office in April 2009 to become U.S. health and human services secretary. Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag said Thursday night that Brownback’s administration has made “immense strides” in improving the prison’s operations since he took office in January 2011.
The Justice Department launched its investigation in April 2011. The findings were reported to Brownback in a letter Thursday from Thomas Perez, the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights. The letter warned that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder could file a lawsuit if the department does not believe Kansas is properly resolving the problems by late October.
“We conclude that TCF fails to protect women prisoners from harm due to sexual abuse and misconduct from correctional staff and other prisoners in violation of their constitutional rights,” Perez said in his letter. “The women at TCF universally fear for their own safety.”
Jones-Sontag noted the 17-month lag between the start of the Justice Department’s investigation and Perez’s letter, and said the Brownback administration “moved aggressively to make changes” that included new policies and the installation of 100 new cameras at the prison.
She said that as the Justice Department gains “a more complete picture” of conditions at the prison, “it will become clear that the constitutional rights of TCF inmates are protected by the State of Kansas in the Brownback administration.”
Potential problems at the prison — including sexual misconduct by staff — were highlighted by the Topeka Capital-Journal in a series of stories starting in October 2009, though allegations dated from the Sebelius administration. The newspaper reported that inmates and staff said as many as one-third of its 250 employees had been involved with an illegal black market that included exchanging drugs for sex with female inmates.
At the time, state corrections officials said the extent of the potential problems had been exaggerated. But Perez’s letter said the state and the prison have failed to remedy “the myriad systemic causes of harm to the women prisoners” despite “well-documented” investigations and audits.
As of Wednesday, the prison housed 684 inmates.
“They live in a highly charged sexual environment with repeated and open sexual behavior, including sexual relations between staff and prisoners and non-consensual sexual conduct between the female prisoners, open and notorious sex parties, and public nudity,” Perez said in his letter.
Much of the inappropriate behavior remains unreported because of insufficient staffing, inadequate policies, a fear of retaliation and “a dysfunctional grievance system,” according to the letter, which noted that 68 percent of the prison’s staff is male.
Keen Umbehr, a Topeka-area attorney who has represented female inmates and investigated their complaints, said he’s disappointed that the Department of Corrections culture hasn’t appeared to change since Brownback took office in January 2011.
“Go to these other states that don’t have any of these problems,” Umbehr said. “They have a management style that prevents this nonsense.”
In 2010, during the tenure of Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson, the state increased the penalties for staff having sex with inmates, requiring prison time. After Brownback took office and appointed him, Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts conducted an internal investigation, leading to more announced changes.
Yet the Justice Department’s letter said the Department of Corrections and the prison “still have failed to adequately address the deficiencies.”
In June, Brownback and legislative leaders agreed to have the state pay $30,000 to a former Topeka Correctional Facility inmate who was forced by an officer into having sex in 2008. The officer had pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual relations and was placed on probation.
The Justice Department letter said officials reviewed a video of an inmate-on-inmate sexual assault at the prison that continued for 45 minutes without staff intervening. The letter did not provide more details about the date of the incident or the inmates involved.
The letter also said prisoners reported incidents of “parties” in which naked prisoners would pass around and use sex toys, though it didn’t say when they occurred. It also said one unnamed officer was fired in 2011 after “years” of credible allegations of sexual abuse.
“Many of the prisoners with whom we spoke also complained of being groped and sexually assaulted in pat-down searches,” the letter said.
The Justice Department letter lists 21 steps it expects the Department of Corrections and the prison to take to remedy the problems. They included enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy against sexual abuse and a policy to prevent any employee, contractor or volunteer suspected of sexual misconduct from having contact with inmates until an investigation is completed.