By Chris Casteel | August 28, 2014
WASHINGTON — The largest women’s prison in Oklahoma topped a survey of reported sexual attacks two years ago largely because inmates were making accusations to get moved or get someone punished, the head of the state’s Corrections Department said here Thursday.
“At Mabel Bassett, sexual assault and harassment reporting became a tool for offenders to manipulate each other and staff to achieve desired outcomes,” corrections chief Robert Patton told a special panel on prison rape at the Department of Justice.
Patton said incidents have dropped dramatically at the 1,200-inmate prison in McLoud since officials have more narrowly defined violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to exclude behavior such as “catcalling across the yard” and “walking with your arm around somebody’s shoulder.”
In the 2012 report, about 15 percent of Mabel Bassett’s inmates reported some form of sexual “victimization” by a fellow inmate.
Patton’s testimony came two days after Jamie Baker, a former guard at Mabel Bassett, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for first- and second-degree rape of female inmates. Another former guard pleaded guilty in March to having sex with inmates and received a suspended sentence.
Richard J. Smothermon, district attorney in Pottawatomie and Lincoln counties, prosecuted Baker, and he told the review panel Thursday that sexual assault cases in prison should be pursued as vigorously as those outside of prison. It is not part of an inmate’s punishment, he said, to be sexually assaulted.
Smothermon said after his testimony that his office had prosecuted cases involving sexual assaults between inmates, though he could not recall how many or the most recent one.
The review panel that held the Thursday hearing was created under PREA to identify common themes about sexual attacks in prison and make recommendations to reduce them.
Panel members — three private citizens with experience in prison administration and sexual assault — wanted to hear from Oklahoma prison officials because the 2012 Justice Department study found Oklahoma had a prison with one of the highest rates of sexual victimization — Mabel Bassett — and one of the lowest — Jackie Brannon Correctional Center, a men’s prison where many of the inmates work on a farm.
Patton and the warden at Mabel Bassett are new to their positions since the 2012 report. Both told the panel they have instituted new training and other measures, including a PREA hotline at each facility, to assure the safety of inmates and ensure allegations of sexual attacks are taken seriously.
Prison officials have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, and they walk the prison yards and talk to inmates and guards to reinforce their policies, Patton said.
There were only three complaints last year at Mabel Bassett of sexual misconduct between inmates. None of the three were sustained, Patton said, because all had ulterior motives.
After his testimony, Patton declined to tell The Oklahoman how many complaints were lodged by Mabel Bassett inmates against prison staff members last year. He said the hearing was about misconduct between inmates at Mabel Bassett. He reiterated that the main reason for the high rate of complaints at Mabel Bassett was inmates “trying to manipulate the system.”
Reginald Wilkinson, a member of the prison rape review panel and former director of Ohio’s prison system, acknowledged that some of the reported accusations at Mabel Bassett could have been exaggerated as Patton said.
“A whole array of things exist and that’s why you have to have a good investigation” of each incident, Wilkinson said.
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