A federal law intended to hold prisons accountable for a culture of sexual violence has been in place for a decade, but changes are coming too slow for inmates and parolees like Kenneth Morgan.
For Morgan, and prison advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union in New Mexico, sexual assaults in confinement continue to be one of the most widespread and neglected human rights crises in the US. Both say a lot of work still needs to be done in New Mexico, where reported assaults behind bars climbed last year.
During his incarceration for drug trafficking and armed robbery at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas, Morgan says in court documents that he lived in constant fear for his life. An effeminate gay man, Morgan worried he’d be “owned” by a more powerful inmate; “rented out” to other inmates for sex, or worse, raped by a guard.
His worst nightmares, he claims in a civil rights lawsuit filed in US District Court in Albuquerque last year, came true after then Capt. Kenneth Carrejo began verbally taunting him.
“You are nothing but a fucking faggot,” Morgan recalls Carrejo telling him. “All faggots are good for is giving a blow job.”
Shortly after New Year’s 2011, Morgan alleges, Carrejo forced him to engage in sexual acts while handcuffed. Afterward, he says the guard threatened to kill him if he reported the crime.
But Morgan did more than report it. He saved what he claims is Carrejo’s DNA and turned it over to his attorneys and undercover agents with the FBI. Last summer, Carrejo was indicted on two counts of raping Morgan.
To protect Morgan from further assaults, corrections officials transferred him to the state penitentiary in Santa Fe. But his lawyer Matthew Coyte contends the move to protective custody was punishment.
“Putting inmates who report sexual assaults into solitary confinement further victimizes them,” Coyte tells SFR.
The ACLU state policy director agrees. “People who have been victimized by sexual violence shouldn’t be punished,” Steven Robert Allen tells SFR.
In the ten years since former President George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) into law, surveys continue to show thousands of inmate-on-inmate assaults and staff-on-inmate contact around the country.
“Sexual violence against inmates is cruel and unusual punishment,” Allen says.
He points to some unsavory national statistics. In 2011-12, an estimated 4 percent of prison inmates and 3 percent of jail inmates in the US reported experiencing sexual victimization. Three years before that, Torrance and Bernalillo Counties topped the national charts with the highest percentage of inmates reporting assault.
The New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD) reported a 21 percent increase in the number of allegations it investigated last year. Close to 35 percent of those claims were made by female inmates at the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants.
Convicts with mental illnesses and juvenile offenders also have higher instances of reported assault behind bars than other inmates.
To curb the problem inside adult prisons, NMCD says it has implemented a zero tolerance policy, rolled out specialized staff training and set up both evidence collection and preservation procedures.
At the Santa Fe County Adult Detention Center, where 3.5 percent of inmates surveyed by the bureau in 2011-12 claim they were victimized, jailers say they’ve put up posters aimed at reducing the numbers of assaults and given inmates access to a confidential toll-free reporting service.
Public Safety Department Director Pablo Sedillo tells SFR that, “only three inmates made a sex-related allegation last year,” and none of those claim were proven by investigators.
State PREA coordinator Shannon McReynolds, who is also NMCD’s inspector general, tells SFR the department has scheduled compliance audits at five facilities around the state this year. But the US Department of Justice has less than three-dozen trained and certified auditors to check on 3,400 facilities.
Anticipating the shortage, Sen. Sander Rue, R-Bernalillo, introduced a senate bill earlier this year that would provide $350,000 to the state attorney general’s office to hire a full time auditor, but the measure was later withdrawn. He plans to reintroduce it in 2014.
Still, 95 percent of prisoners return to society after serving their sentences, “We don’t want them coming out more damaged than when they went in,” Rue says.
While Rue and state officials look for PREA grant money, NMCD Secretary Gregg Marcantel says his department is “committed to raising the bar in prison operations.”
Marcantel writes in an annual assessment on the department’s progress addressing sexual abuse that he believes the increase in the reported number of assaults may be attributed to training programs that encourage reporting, and to inmates who are seeking monetary rewards from civil lawsuits.