Feds: Kan. women's prison violates inmates' rights
If Kansas officials don't take remedial action in less than 50 days to address Eighth Amendment violations at the prison, the Justice Department issued notice of intent to file a federal lawsuit to compel reform
By Tim Carpenter
TOPEKA, Kan. — An investigation by the U.S. Justice Department made public Thursday contained findings of rampant, widespread sexual abuse at Topeka Correctional Facility among state employees and inmates in violation of the constitutional rights of women incarcerated at the facility.
The Justice Department's report to Gov. Sam Brownback declared Kansas Department of Corrections officials "still have not acted" to correct "repeatedly documented" misconduct and "grossly deficient systemic practices" at TCF despite a series of stories in The Topeka Capital-Journal in 2009 and two independent audits in 2010 pointing to employee-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse.
"Our investigation has revealed that multiple deficiencies in the operations of the Topeka Correctional Facility have exposed female prisoners to harm and the serious risk of harm," said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division in Washington, D.C.
Federal investigators launched the inquiry in 2011 based on suspicion the array of problems surrounding sexual misconduct at the prison for women in East Topeka hadn't been corrected by state officials.
"The women at TCF universally fear for their own safety," the Justice Department report says. "Yet, at the time of our visit, the problems persisted - KDOC and TCF leadership still have failed to adequately address the deficiencies."
If Kansas officials don't take remedial action in less than 50 days to address Eighth Amendment violations at the prison, the Justice Department issued notice of intent to file a federal lawsuit to compel reform.
Sherriene Jones-Sontag, spokeswoman for Brownback, said the majority of malfeasance explored by the Justice Department occurred during the administration of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Upon taking office, the governor ordered his corrections secretary, Ray Roberts, to conduct a comprehensive review of TCF.
"Immense strides have been made by Secretary Roberts and the KDOC to correct the TCF deficiencies that began under Governor Kathleen Sebelius and were permitted to fester without sufficient attention until Governor Brownback took office," she said.
In addition to security upgrades recommended by outside auditors, Brownback requested additional state funding to improve recruitment and retention of personnel at TCF.
"We are confident that as DOJ gains a more complete picture of the situation at TCF as it exists today, it will become clear that the constitutional rights of TCF inmates are protected by the state of Kansas in the Brownback administration," Jones-Sontag said.
The Justice Department concluded:
- TCF inmates "live in a highly charged sexual environment with notorious sex parties and public nudity" occurring with the permission of guards or due to lack of oversight by officers.
- Federal investigators uncovered a "shocking digital recording of a recent prisoner-on-prisoner sexual assault that continued for approximately 45 minutes without intervention." Guards were neither in the building nor watching video monitors.
- "Sexual misconduct by staff and prisoners is rampant throughout the facility," but inmates estimated one-third was consensual.
- Inappropriate sexual behavior goes unreported due to flawed TCF staffing and supervision, a heightened fear of retaliation, a dysfunctional grievance system and weak investigative processes.
Barry Grissom, U.S. attorney for Kansas, said the federal prosecutor's office stood ready to work with state government officials to resolve glaring problems outlined by the department's investigators.
"The report has identified a very serious and troubling situation at the facility," Grissom said. "Action needs to be taken immediately."
Since 2001, TCF has served as the lone state prison for women in Kansas. On average, more than 500 women ranging from work-release to maximum-security inmates are housed there.
The Capital-Journal's sex-abuse stories in 2009 detailed problems at the prison with impropriety among inmates and corrections officers, including a plumbing instructor charged with rape after an inmate became pregnant.
The stories described how inmates were driven in state vehicles by a corrections officer to a Topeka cemetery or other remote areas and forced to engage in sexual conduct. In June, Brownback and top legislators approved payment of $30,000 in state funding to a former inmate involved in these assaults.
Other stories in The Capital-Journal documented use by the state corrections department of inmate labor in abatement of cancer-causing asbestos from TCF buildings. The state was reprimanded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2010, the National Institute of Corrections and the Kansas Legislative Post Audit Committee issued reports stipulating dangers faced by TCF prisoners in regard to sexual abuse. The 2010 Legislature amended Kansas law to increase the penalty for unlawful sexual relations between prison staff members and inmates. TCF's warden at that time was removed from his job.
Roberts, hired by Brownback as secretary of the Department of Corrections in 2011, vowed to correct inadequacies at TCF by installing more cameras at the prison and improving training standards.
Internal investigation operations were to be improved as TCF made "great strides" in reducing sexual misconduct, Roberts said.
"TCF will continue to make professionalism and zero tolerance for sexual misconduct a top priority," Roberts said days before the Justice Department launched its inquiry at the prison.
However, the Justice Department said findings of their investigation "mirror those found" two years ago by NIC and Kansas auditors.
Federal officials concluded TCF failed to employ routinely accepted correctional practices, including gender-responsive training of the staff. TCF had no early-warning system to identify problem employees or a method of tracking potential misconduct, the Justice Department said.
The department urged immediate implementation of a policy governing oversight of women inmates on work release or risk the certainty "abuse will continue to occur." The report recommended the number of female officers at TCF be increased.
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