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California prison inmates filed 1,150 complaints last year alleging they were mistreated sexually behind bars, a 29 percent increase over 2016.
The numbers are striking, but victim advocates and state prison officials say the trend might actually reflect greater confidence among inmates that their complaints will be taken seriously since the department adopted policies complying with a federal rape reporting rule.
“It seems counter-intuitive, but it actually suggests that survivors are more comfortable coming forward and that something about (the department’s) education and awareness is working,” said Sandra Henriquez, chief executive of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
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More than half of the complaints alleged that prison staff harassed or mistreated inmates, according to the department’s annual sexual misconduct report. That increased from 387 inmate allegations against staff in 2016 to 582 in 2017.
In 14 cases, department investigators found merit to inmate complaints against staff. The department has a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual misconduct, but it could not say in an interview whether the incidents led to discipline.
The Bee earlier this year reported that state agencies had paid more than $25 million to settle sexual harassment claims over the past three years. The lion’s share — $15 million — involved cases in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The state recently released sexual misconduct data in its annual Prison Rape Elimination Act report. The department has stepped up its efforts to educate inmates on how they can report sexual harassment and assault since the U.S. Justice Department published a rule in 2012 describing how correctional facilities can comply with the 2003 law.
Now, inmates receive a briefing from staff and from a peer on their rights as soon as they’re admitted into a prison. They also watch a video.
The department has placed posters around prisons describing how inmates can make a report, and it has trained staff on how to question an inmate if the state employee observes behavior that suggests someone has been traumatized.
Inmates can make confidential reports to an inspector general, or call outside agencies such as rape crisis centers. Prison staff report on the outcomes of their investigations when inmates do not request confidentiality.
Each prison receives a regular audit on its sexual assault practices, and each prison has a supervisor in charge of complying with the law.
“I’m never happy about an increase,” said Capt. Shannon Stark, the department’s Prison Rape Elimination Act coordinator. “The whole goal of (the law) is to eliminate it, but I do feel like what the numbers tell us is that all our additional training for inmates and staff is working.”
The report described five categories of sexual misconduct.
— Inmates made 336 reports alleging staff committed sexual misconduct, up from 217 cases in 2016. Department investigators found merit to 11 cases, up from five in the previous year. Most of the allegations were considered unfounded or unsubstantiated. Twenty-six of them are open.
— Reports of inmate-on-inmate rape increased to 290 allegations, up from 271 in 2016. It determined that nine cases were substantiated. Thirteen cases are open.
— Reports of abusive sexual contact between inmates increased to 173 cases, up from 134 in 2016.
— Reports of sexual harassment between inmates increased to 105 cases, up from 203 in 2016.
Linda McFarlane, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, said it’s common for institutions to see increases in reports of sexual misconduct after they add resources for people to report allegations anonymously.
“Sexual abuse in general is the most under-reported crime, and it’s been even more under-reported in detention,” she said. “In theory, we don’t want to see an increase in reporters, but as a sexual assault advocate, more people reporting is a positive thing.”