Allegations of Federal Bureau of Prisons staff members committing sexual abuse and misconduct with inmates have more than doubled in the last seven years, a new government report says.
Inmates serving time in federal prisons reported 231 instances of sex abuse or misconduct by staffers last year, and 1,585 instances since 2001, according to the Justice Department study.
The authors of the study say better reporting methods may have accounted for the increase, but also recommend that the Bureau of Prisons update its staff training and that the U.S. Marshals Service institutes a sexual abuse prevention program.
The report stems from the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which was passed by Congress in 2003.
There are 207,000 people serving time in federal prisons in the United States.
At Gainesville’s U.S. District Court, defendants are routinely sentenced to serve time in federal custody and may be assigned by the Bureau of Prisons to a facility outside Georgia.
Of the country’s 93 federally operated prisons, Atlanta’s medium-security U.S. Penitentiary was ninth with 35 allegations of sexual abuse since 2001, including three last year. The Federal Correctional Institute in Jesup was 37th with 15 complaints from 2001-2008. Georgia’s McRae Correctional Facility holds federal prisoners but was not listed in the report because it is operated by a private company.
The report from the office of the justice department’s inspector general only addressed allegations against prison staff and did not include reports of inmate-on-inmate sex abuse.
Officials with Just Detention International, a Washington, D.C.-based organization dedicated to preventing sexual abuse of prisoners, said the report, and the response from the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service, was important.
"It shows sexual abuse continues to be a major problem in federal facilities," said Darby Hickey, senior communications associate for Justice Detention International.
The Marshals Service, which transports federal prisoners and guards them in cellblocks during and after court appearances, agreed it needed to implement a zero-tolerance policy to prevent abuse of prisoners.
The Bureau of Prisons said in a response it would update its training.
"Both of these agencies recognize that virtually all of the recommendations (in the report) should be followed, which is a change from the past, when there was some resistance," Hickey said.
Hickey said the common assumption that more sexual assaults behind bars are committed by inmates than staff is "not necessarily" true.
An earlier survey by the Department of Justice found that in some facilities, abuse was committed more often by prison staff than inmates, Hickey said.
"They found they were both happening at about the same frequencies," Hickey said.
In a 2007 study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 4.5 percent of the nation’s 1.3 million federal and state inmates reported being sexually abused.
Kevin Tamez, a managing partner with the MPM Group, a firm that consults clients preparing to enter federal prison, said for the most part, sexual abuse seems confined to high-security federal facilities.
In low- and medium-security prison environments, "it would be extremely rare," he said.
Tamez believes even high-security federal prisons don’t have as much sexual abuse of inmates as state facilities.
"The Bureau of Prisons runs a pretty tight ship," Tamez said. "For an organization that has over 200,000 inmates, they have a pretty professional organization. There’s a better correctional officer to inmate ratio, and frankly they don’t tolerate (abuse)."
Tamez believes the U.S. Marshals Service operates in a different environment from the Bureau of Prisons that would make staff abuse of inmates "pretty tough to pull off."
As transporters of inmates, marshals travel in pairs and sometimes four at a time, Tamez noted.
"These guys are good, and they take pride in taking the baddest inmates from point A to point B, but they don’t do it in an environment conducive to committing sexual abuse," Tamez said.
Hickey, the prison advocate, said the next big step is for agencies to implement new standards developed by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.
"I think this is definitely an important improvement from the past, when (the Bureau of Prisons) would just deny this is an issue," Hickey said of the report and responses to it. "What we would really like to see is the Bureau of Prisons do the next logical thing, which is the enactment of the standards."