LANSING- Accurate statistics are scarce, but
some prisoners’ rights advocates say rape behind bars has never stopped
and won’t easily disappear.
The federal and state governments have no official figures on how widespread prison rape is because of the difficulty of surveying prisoners, said Paul Leighton, a criminal justice professor at Eastern Michigan University.
He said the difficulty arises mostly because of the victims’ embarrassment, especially if a case involves man-on-man rape.
"Many men don’t want to admit they’ve been raped, so surveys are problematic,” he said. “There’s also a definitional problem. Many men are told to pair up with someone stronger and do whatever he wants in exchange for protection from everyone else. That behavior is considered consensual, although it’s coerced and survival-driven even if it’s not what we normally think of as rape.”
Margaret Topham, administrative assistant at the Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer County, said her prison neither keeps track of prisoners’ complaints nor has any rape prevention programs.
The Department of Corrections won’t say if the state keeps the statistics.
For nongovernment organizations, extremely limited access to prison documents is another big challenge in putting together statistics, said Jamie Fellner, U.S. program director for Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization.
"They want to keep everything very, very close to their chest,” she said of prison officials.
Different organizations offer different numbers on the occurrence of rape in prison, which vary from 10 to 30 percent a year. According to the National Institute of Corrections, for example, one out of 10 prisoners in the country was sexually assaulted in 2003.
Congress recognized the seriousness of the problem with a 2003 law intended to stop prison rape. Under the law, Michigan has received a $1 million for mandatory staff training and inmate surveys.
The new programs are expected to begin in the summer, said Leo Lalonde, public information officer for the Corrections Department.
Topham said rape isn’t a major issue in the Thumb Correctional Facility, but the federally funded statewide initiative is necessary because rape can always occur.
Some civil rights groups also regard the federal government’s move as positive, but question whether it will be successful because of underlying problems, including unreported cases.
"I don’t know to what degree that funding can help,” said Kay Perry, director of the Michigan Chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants.
She said tighter monitoring of inmates by prison staff is an important, yet difficult part of prevention.
For example, she said, successful monitoring needs constant supervision by staff, which is hard to require.
"Staff has more to do with prevention than anything,” she said. “They are in an environment where they have absolute power. It’s a hard job and not everyone is suited to do it.”
Given the large number of prisoners in the state, the federal money, which also covers county jails, could be insufficient, Leighton said.
Advocacy groups say it’s important for prison staff to take prisoners’ complaints seriously, which doesn’t always happen. Penny Ryder, director of American Friends Service Committee Criminal Justice Program, said officials often fail to encourage victims to file complaints.
Seeking legal remedies is even harder for prisoners, making prison rape charges rare and victims more vulnerable, the groups say.
David Payant, chief assistant prosecutor for Marquette County, said his office has handled only two prison rape cases in 23 years, the last one about 15 years ago, but acknowledged there could be more incidents unreported.
Legal hurdles seriously discourage prisoners from filing civil suits when they are sexually abused, said Deborah Labelle, an Ann Arbor attorney working on a class action suit involving women prisoners who were sexually abused by male prison staff. “It’s a very difficult route.”
She said many prison rape cases involve women inmates abused by male officers.
For example, Corrections Officer Albert Moon was sentenced in 2000 to 139 days in jail for sexually assaulting a female inmate in 1997 at the Robert Scott Correctional Facility in Wayne County.
Still, prosecutions are uncommon, and victims face many disadvantages, experts say.
Eastern Michigan’s Leighton said lawsuits are difficult because prisoners are often considered less credible as witnesses.
Jim Langtry, chief of operations at Macomb County prosecutor’s office said part of the challenge is that victims often change their stories and witnesses don’t cooperate for fear of retaliation.
"While many people think prisoners have many rights to sue the state, in reality it’s very difficult. Even rapes that result in HIV infection would be unlikely to result in a successful suit against the state,” Leighton said.