Prison rape is no big deal in Connecticut, according to statistics provided by state corrections officials. Their numbers show that, despite having more than 17,000 men and women behind bars, our prisons have been averaging fewer than three proven sexual assaults a year.
Except those figures may be wildly inaccurate.
“They seem incredibly low to me,” Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, says of the prison rape numbers out of Connecticut’s Department of Correction (DOC).
“Everyone knows that under-reporting [of prison rape] is a rampant, rampant problem,” Fettig says.
A recently released study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics backs up that claim. Bureau officials decided to interview newly released prisoners, rather than inmates still locked up in state prisons, figuring the ex-cons would be more likely to tell the truth about prison rape because they no longer feared retaliation by other prisoners or corrections officials.
What they found was chilling.
Nearly 10 percent of former prisoners said they’d been sexually abused in prison, including 3.7 percent saying they’d been forced to have sex (manual stimulation, oral, anal or vaginal penetration) with other inmates; while 5.3 percent reported the abuse came from prison staffers.
Almost 40 percent of gay ex-inmates said they’d been sexually assaulted.
The overall numbers were more than double the national prison rape rates being reported to the feds by state correctional facilities. (Connecticut’s reported prison rape counts are far lower than the national averages.) Even more gut-wrenching is that, of the former inmates who said they reported a sexual assault, 47 percent said they ended up being punished by prison staff.
Often, Fettig says, an inmate who complains about rape “will be written up for having sex with another prisoner,” which is a violation of prison regulations. Or they may get hit with some other infraction of the rules.
Fettig says under-reporting by state officials “is not surprising” considering the way prison rape is handled in most state institutions. “There is still a culture in corrections that believes rape is a normal part of the experience in prison… and that these people deserve what they get,” she says.
Connecticut officials dispute that’s what’s happening here.
Connecticut DOC spokesman Brian Garnett argues the inmate population in this state “is very forthcoming” about reporting sexual assaults. “I think it is common knowledge that this is handled very professionally by staff when a report is made,” he says.
“All allegations of sexual contact are taken extremely seriously from the moment they are reported, and are fully investigated,” Garnett said in an e-mail response for this story.
Garnett insists that “everything is thoroughly investigated, first by the state police, and then by us” when an inmate reports being sexually abused in some way. He says Connecticut prison staffers “are trained to recognize the potential for sexual assault and how to take steps to prevent it as well as how to respond to reports it has occurred.”
In May, the White House ordered all federal and state officials to adopt “zero tolerance” standards for prison rape. New federal standards, which have been in development since the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed by Congress in 2003, have now been issued.
Our General Assembly last year approved legislation requiring the state DOC to comply with the PREA rules. DOC Commissioner Leo C. Arnone told lawmakers his agency had already adopted a “zero tolerance policy on sexual assault” and was already following all the proposed federal standards.
States that fail to comply with the new anti-prison-rape regulations — including having outside audits of each facility every three years — could be punished by the loss of 5 percent of their federal prison funding.
Connecticut’s prison population has been steadily dropping, from a high of 19,894 in February 2008 down to just 17,023 in January of this year. There’s also been a decrease in the number of sexual assault complaints by inmates during that same period.