AUGUSTA — Inmates in Maine’s state prisons are more likely to be sexually assaulted than those in most other correctional facilities around the U.S., a recent Department of Justice report suggests.
The Maine State Prison in Warren was one of eight facilities from among 463 visited by Department of Justice officials in which the rate of sexual assault was significantly higher than the national average. Those assaults, according to DOJ, are perpetrated by other inmates and prison staff.
State prison officials are working to change that poor record in response to the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, of 2003, and to a report prompted by the law earlier this year that featured survey data of 81,566 inmates nationwide. Also, in May, the Obama administration began pushing a zero-tolerance approach for sexual assault in prisons.
Inmates at the Maine State Prison and the Maine Correctional Center in Windham were surveyed between 2007 and 2009 for the report.
In the 2007 survey at the Maine Correctional Center, 173 of an estimated 650 inmates were asked about sexual assaults and unwanted sexual advances, responding using a computer touch screen that maintained confidentiality. The overall rate of sexual assault — including inmate-on-inmate, staff-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff — was found to be 5.6 percent, compared with a national rate of 4.5 percent, according to Allen Beck, senior statistical advisor at the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“If the data are restricted to inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization,” Beck reported, “the Maine facility rate was 4.4 percent, compared with a national rate of 2.1 percent.”
The 2008-2009 survey of 143 of about 950 prisoners at the Maine State Prison found an overall rate of 9.9 percent sexual victimization rate. The corresponding national rate was 4.4 percent, Beck said. If limited to inmate-on-inmate assaults, the rate at the facility was 5.9 percent, compared to a national rate of 2.1 percent.
Beck said both surveys were found to have high rates of statistical accuracy. Comparing the sampling process to a presidential preference poll, Beck said, “This is actually better,” because larger numbers were sampled and because mathematical formulas and historical data confirmed the accuracy.
The survey included 10 questions each for men and women inmates about various sexual acts. Each question started with one of the following two phrases: “During the last 12 months, did another inmate use physical force to make you …?” or “Did another inmate, without using physical force, pressure you or make your feel that you had to …?”
The survey found that nationally, most sexual assaults occurred in the first 24 hours of a victim’s incarceration and occurred between 6 p.m. and midnight.
Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who has been overseeing state prisons in Maine since 2011, said he had not been able to review the raw data that came from the inmate surveys conducted in Maine.
“I don’t know if it’s accurate,” he said of the DOJ report. “You just have to take the data for what it is.”
In Maine, any sexual contact between inmates and between staff and inmates is prohibited, and officials assume any such contact is not consensual. Maine also does not tabulate complaints from inmates of sexual assault at the hands of other prisoners or by staff, Ponte said, nor does it keep easily retrievable lists of criminal charges that followed such complaints.
“We’re just not collecting data in a sophisticated way,” he said, “but we probably should.”
The commissioner also noted that there is a range of complaints. Some fall into the petty category, he said, such as when an inmate claims a guard groped him during a pat-down search.
Better data will come as part of a $545,000 PREA grant to the state, Ponte said.
The grant is paying for a PREA coordinator at the Corrections Department, new information technology infrastructure and software, an outside consultant to review the culture at Maine State Prison to bring it into compliance with PREA, and a screening process which Ponte hopes will identify likely perpetrators and victims when they enter the facility, thereby allowing administrators to house them accordingly.
All states have until August to comply with PREA.
“Ten years ago, it was an untalked about topic,” Ponte said of rape in prison. Many prison officials viewed it as an inevitability, and incidents often were not reported. In those days, he said, “An assault was an assault,” and so a punch was not differentiated from a sexual attack.
That attitude changed with PREA, he said.
“It’s clearly an area that we’ve put a lot of attention and focus on,” he said, and improvements will come.
Stan Moody, who served as prison chaplain at Maine State Prison from 2008 to 2009, paints a different picture.
Though he gives Ponte high marks for making changes in the culture by moving staff and prisoners to different parts of the facility, Moody described a system he likened to “a mini Mafia.” Inmates were beholden to some staff members as their “kids,” and lower in the hierarchy, inmates were beholden to other inmates as their “kids.” Sexual favors and drugs were the currency in this power structure, he said.
Moody said prisons are “a hormone factory,” and that sex, both consensual and nonconsensual, “may not be tolerated officially, but it’s going to be a regular feature of prison.”
“The DOC has a zero-tolerance policy regarding sex, but that defies reality and really amounts to a zero-tolerance policy of dealing with sexual assault — the three-monkey defense of hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,” Moody said.
When pressed for specifics, the former chaplain said that during the time he was at the prison, no inmate filed an official complaint about a sexual assault. Moody said that was because assaulted inmates feared retribution from other inmates or guards. He stressed that he would warn inmates for their own protection that if they reported a sexual assault to him, he was obligated to report the incident and the name of the complainant.
“Virtually all of the reporting that I received had to do with physical and emotional harassment and guard complicity with harassment,” he said. “Sex could very well have been part of that harassment, but if so it was not mentioned. … What that tells me is that sexual assault is an accepted part of prison life and buried.”
Ponte declined to comment specifically on Moody’s claims because he was not commissioner during the years Moody worked at the prison, he said. But he cast some doubt on those claims based on his contact with inmates and their families.
“I think the place was much different when [Moody] was there,” Ponte said. “I take 10-15 calls a day and I get 10-15 emails a day from families,” and in his nearly two-year tenure, no one has reported a sexual assault.
“I talk to family members, I talk to inmates,” he said.
Now, any complaint of sexual violence from an inmate is required to be passed up the chain of command. “That goes right to the warden,” Ponte said, and an investigator is assigned to the case. The perpetrator is removed from the general population.
With the federal PREA grant, a special telephone number on a phone in the prison’s day rooms can be accessed by inmates to make complaints of sexual assaults. The calls will be monitored by the PREA coordinator hired through the grant, the commissioner said.
“We established a security team at Maine State Prison,” Ponte said, which identifies sexual predators and drug dealers. “We have a very good handle on who’s in those categories.”
Two important keys to changing the culture, the commissioner said, are training and hiring practices. Ponte wants to raise the employee screening process to that used by the Maine State Police, which employs polygraph tests and psychological profiles to ensure good hires.
Last month, the Corrections Department published a request for proposals to develop an inmate screening process. A $75,000 grant, created with federal funds, will go to the winning bidder, expected to be announced next month. The work must be completed within six months and the state must be in compliance with the federal law by Aug. 20, 2013.
Once developed, the screenings will be conducted at the Maine State Prison, the Maine Correctional Center, the Mountain View Youth Detention Center in Charleston and the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland.
In Maine, there are just over 2,000 adult prisoners in the state facilities and about 200 under 21 in state facilities.
The department is not limiting the bidders for the grant to any particular kind of organization, though psychiatric research centers and institutions of higher learning would be likely groups to respond, according to the Corrections Department’s Michelle Urbanek, who has been named the state’s PREA coordinator.
“Nobody has been able to form [an effective] screening tool yet. We’re hoping someone out there can help,” Urbanek said.
Judy Plummer, a Corrections Department spokeswoman, said two or three states had developed their own screening process, but when they were applied to Maine prisoners, nearly everyone was identified as either a potential perpetrator or victim, rendering it useless.
If potential perpetrators and victims can be identified, Urbanek said, “It’s going to help us know where to house them. It will help us fit them appropriately.”
Urbanek said information generated by a screening tool also would help medical and mental health staff in prisons.
Not everyone sees the screening as innocuous, though.
Judy Garvey of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition said her group wholeheartedly supports the goal of eliminating sexual assaults in prisons. But she worries that an incoming prisoner’s criminal history might unduly affect the screening, and that the process may be too subjective, resulting in curtailed civil liberties.
“Our concern is that the screening can cause problems that are not there,” Garvey said.
“It’s a problem in all prisons,” she said of sexual assault, the result of “putting together hundreds of people” without adequate outlets.
On TV and in movies, rape in prison is often a punchline to a joke, the DOJ report notes.
“But sexual abuse is never a laughing matter, nor is it punishment for a crime,” the report asserts. “Rather, it is a crime, and it is no more tolerable when its victims have committed crimes of their own.
“Prison rape can have severe consequences for victims, for the security of correctional facilities, and for the safety and well-being of the communities to which nearly all incarcerated persons will eventually return,” the department concluded.