Seventeen inmates were “sexually victimized” in Vermont prisons last year, according to a recently filed disclosure by the Vermont Department of Corrections.
Prisoners' rights officials say the incidents are not evidence of a "big problem" in state-run correctional facilities, but say they are still working to reduce occurrences of sexual assault.
The federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed in 2003, requires states to report incidents of rape and sexual harassment in jails. In corrections circles, the statute is usually referred to as PREA.
“It is common in our language. You will hear inmates talking about PREA,” says Lisa Menard, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections.
Menard says the reason inmates talk about PREA is because corrections officials have trained them to take it seriously.
“When inmates come in they are immediately oriented. They are given an orientation to the Prison Rape Elimination Act, told what that means, what to report, what they are not allowed to do,” Menard says.
That training, however, hasn’t eliminated sexual violence in Vermont prisons. And according to the state’s latest PREA report, there were 17 substantiated instances of sexual victimization in Vermont prisons in 2016.
“It’s like, you don’t want any numbers, right? But relative to the thousands that are going in and out, I wouldn’t say it’s terrible,” says Defender General Matt Valerio, who runs the state office that represents people in the custody of the Department of Corrections. “In general, I wouldn’t say it’s a big problem.”
The 17 incidents of sexual victimization last year include everything from verbal harassment to what is termed “abusive sexual contact.” There were no substantiated instances of “non-consensual sex acts” in 2016, according to the state. But there were two cases in which corrections staff were guilty of “sexual misconduct” with an inmate under their care, and one case of sexual harassment by a correctional officer.
Commissioner of Corrections Lisa Menard says discipline for those staff members is swift.
“The presumption in these cases is termination,” Menard says.
And Menard and Valerio say staff members have been charged criminally for sex offenses.
But Tom Dalton, the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, says the statistics reveal a stark reality.
“To me, these numbers demonstrate that correctional facilities are not safe places,” Dalton says.
Dalton says if the state can’t guarantee the safety of its inmates, then it needs to use incarceration more sparingly.
“A lot of people who are incarcerated are there for non-violent crimes, and yet they themselves may be subjected to violence, including sexual violence, while they’re incarcerated,” Dalton says.
Seth Lipschutz, the supervising attorney at the Vermont Prisoners’ Rights Office, says even one incident of sexual victimization is too many. But he says short of segregating prisoners from each other entirely, getting to zero incidents is unlikely to happen.
“Even though it’s prison you can’t control every second everything that goes on inside,” Lipschutz says. “Prison is really in many ways just a microcosm of the world at large. So in public we have that same debate - how much freedom do we want and how much security do we want?”
The 17 substantiated cases of sexual victimization in 2016 might not capture the full scope of the problem. There were 47 unsubstantiated cases of sexual victimization, which means investigators were unable determine one way or another whether an allegation made by an inmate happened.
Those unsubstantiated cases include three allegations of inmate-on-inmate non-consensual sex acts, and eight allegations of sexual misconduct by corrections staff.
“Sometimes we have really clear evidence that says it didn’t happen or it did. Often it’s one person’s word against the other,” says Wendy Yoder, who oversees PREA compliance at the Vermont Department of Corrections.
Whether the cases are substantiated or not, Yoder says the department works to diffuse a potential threat immediately after an allegation is made.
“And the first thing that we do is work to ensure that the alleged victim is safe, so that they’re no longer in harm’s way, if they were in harm’s way,” Yoder says. “If we get information that says there’s a likelihood there was criminal activity, then we’ll make a referral for a law enforcement investigation.”
Valerio says the majority of illegal sexual encounters in Vermont prisons likely goes unreported altogether, “because they’re consensual, and they don’t want them to stop.”
“We have a lot more incidents of quote/unquote consensual sexual activity between guards and inmates than we have complaints about non-consensual activity either between inmates and inmates or guards and inmates,” Valerio says.
In Vermont, it’s against the law for a corrections officer to have sex with an inmate, even if the inmate “consents.” The law passed after legislators decided that the imbalanced power dynamic made inmates incapable of giving legal consent.
Menard says the state passed its last PREA audit four years ago. She says the state is currently undergoing a federal PREA audit, and that she anticipates the department will be in compliance this time as well.
“I would never say, ‘We’re done, we’re not doing anything else, we’re fine.’ We will make every effort to implement any additional thing that could be helpful in preventing these acts,” Menard says.