Prison rape is even more difficult to quantify when authorities fail to report allegations of sexual abuse accurately, or at all.
San Diego County officials have been misreporting allegations of staff sexual misconduct to the federal government, CityBeat has learned. The San Diego County Probation Department, which manages five facilities for juvenile offenders, has also failed to meet national recommended standards, particularly regarding transparency, despite assurances made to the press in 2010.
In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which began the process of establishing "zero tolerance" policies for sexual abuse, including assault perpetrated by inmates and staff, in adult and juvenile detention centers. As part of the law, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BOJS) began conducting an annual "Survey of Sexual Violence," requiring yearly reports of alleged sexual violence from federal and state facilities, as well as from a randomized selection of local facilities.
San Diego County Probation has filed 15 such survey forms for juvenile facilities since 2004 and not one discloses any allegation of sexual misconduct by staff, giving the false impression of a perfect record. Presented with inconsistencies between the surveys and other public records, the Probation Department now admits it does not disclose cases that are investigated by its internal-affairs unit. Since all allegations against staff are investigated by internal affairs, this policy has resulted in the omission of all staff-misconduct cases from the federal surveys.
"Information for the survey was gathered from data entered into the probation case management system, which does not include internal affairs reports due to their sensitive nature," probation spokesperson Tammy Glenn said in an email to CityBeat. "We do plan to review our department's process for gathering data to determine if internal affairs reports should be captured for the purposes of the survey in the future."
Probation's internal-affairs unit has investigated at least six allegations of staff sexual misconduct at its facilities since 2008, Glenn says. Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins has also said in previous news stories that its internal-affairs unit launched 10 such investigations between 2004 and 2010 at the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility and the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility, through which roughly 9,000 kids pass each year. Probation says that some of these cases occurred at facilities that were not surveyed and therefore would not have been reported to the BOJS anyway. However, Glenn acknowledges that the department failed to report one case on a federal survey it filed in 2011.
Probation officials declined multiple interview requests and provided little clarification of the department's procedures.
The agency's explanation is far from sufficient, says Dr. Allen Beck, the researcher who heads up prison-rape research for the BOJS.
"Those cases should've been reported," Beck says. "For us, whether they're in the case-management system or not is not particularly relevant. It's whether those allegations were made and whether investigations were triggered by those allegations. Whether it's internal affairs, local law enforcement or child protective services, it doesn't matter where those cases get reported and who takes them."
The county downplayed the importance of the surveys, saying the information is for "data collection only, and does not address the manner in which Probation protects its youth in custody."
That answer does not sit well with victim advocates.
"I absolutely do not agree," says Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, a nonprofit with a core mission of ending prison rape. "Data collection of sexual abuse in detention is essential to solving the problem. If we don't acknowledge the scope of the problem and understand the dynamics of the problem, then we can't solve the problem."
The facility surveys aren't the only means the federal government uses to document sexual violence behind bars. Because inmates are often unwilling to report abuse directly to staff, BOJS researchers independently interview youth directly and guarantee anonymity.
In its National Survey of Youth in Custody report, released in 2010, BOJS reported that five out of 36 boys at the East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility told researchers they'd been sexually abused by staff, a rate of 14.3 percent. That was the second highest rate of the 18 California juvenile facilities included in the survey and two points above the national average.
"We find much higher rates when we do the anonymous surveys than when we rely on official records," Beck says, suggesting victims might be afraid of the consequences of talking to staff, such as retaliation or being transferred to another facility.
Questioned at the time by U-T San Diego reporter Kristina Davis, Jenkins said he was "somewhat surprised" by the report's findings. However, he told Davis that the county was already in compliance with national recommended standards.
Those recommendations were approved by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in June 2009 and include a wide array of measures, such as adopting uniform policies and appointing a central staffer to coordinate complaints. The standards also dictate several transparency measures, including recording data from every facility annually and publishing it online along with a report outlining the agency's policies and plans for improvement. The department is also supposed to hire an auditor to review its policies and publish the audits online. None of these documents are currently available; nor were they provided to CityBeat in response to a public-records requests.
The Justice Department is expected to adopt the commission's standards this spring, including requirements that agencies publish their investigative policies online. CityBeat requested these policies; as of deadline, two weeks had elapsed and the county asked for an extension until Feb. 2, claiming the need to compile data and consult "among several agencies and divisions."
The probation department is now backtracking on its adherence to the standards.
"Probation is awaiting the updated and final standards by the Department of Justice, which are expected to be enacted this year," Glenn says.
This isn't the only contradiction regarding the Probation Department's statements to the press. In the U-T story, Jenkins says probation investigated three allegations of sexual misconduct involving female staff in 2009 at the East Mesa facility. None were reported on the official survey.
Glenn now says those cases occurred in 2008, a year the facility wasn't surveyed. However, a 2011 story by News 8 San Diego reporter David Gotfredson revealed one case definitely occurred in 2009. According to court records obtained by Gotfredson, the alleged abuse of a detainee transpired between April and September 2009 and the relationship continued after the juvenile's release. The employee resigned before the investigation was completed.
San Diego's juvenile facilities are inspected yearly by two local citizen boards, the San Diego County Grand Jury and the Juvenile Justice Commission. The resulting reports note that juveniles are briefed daily regarding sexual harassment and told that allegations are taken "very seriously." Staff are trained in preventing sexual harassment and identifying abuse annually or every two years, depending on the facility.
One alleged sexual assault by a staff member at the Kearny Mesa facility was disclosed in a 2010 Juvenile Justice Commission report, but not on the BOJS survey. The allegation was listed as "unfounded."
The "Survey of Sexual Violence" data shows 15 allegations of youth-on-youth incidents at the Kearny Mesa facility and three allegations at East Mesa between 2004 and 2006. However, probation has reported a steep decrease in recent years, with zero youth-on-youth allegations in the eight reports filed with the BOJS since 2007.
As an advocate, Stannow says detainees who have been assaulted by other detainees are often reluctant to come forward because, if it becomes known they have been raped (or "turned out," in jail terms), the detainee is at higher risk of abuse by other inmates. Official surveys only reveal the "tip of the iceberg," Stannow says, and the numbers are only as accurate as the trust between detainees and their caretakers.
"If you have reason to believe that reporting sexual abuse will mean that you will be retaliated against, that you will be perhaps raped again, or that nothing will happen, there will be no serious outcome or investigations, then it's obvious as a survivor you will keep quiet," she says.