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January 3rd, 2007 Ian Demsky | News Stories
 

Double-bunk Jeopardy

New anti-jail-rape regulations put 200 Multnomah County jail beds at risk.

     
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TOP OR BOTTOM? Double-bunking poses rape hazards for inmates.
IMAGE: MULTNOMAH COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
Even if your cellie gives his word to stop at third, the line between consensual and coerced sex behind bars is a blurry one.

And a federal law prioritizing prevention of prison rape puts an increased spotlight on preventing unwanted sexual contact on jailers and wardens, including Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto, who oversees 1,690 beds in the county's beleaguered jail system.

At issue: Whether Giusto and the county can provide enough supervision to prevent unwanted sexual contact when the new standards take effect in 2008 in the system's 200 double-bunked cells, which are all at the downtown Multnomah County Detention Center.

If the answer is no, those cells may have to go, getting converted to hold just one prisoner. While eliminating poking in the pokey, that would effectively shrink jail capacity significantly at a time when bed shortages already have criminals bragging they'll be out before an officer's paperwork is done.

But failing to comply with stepped-up rape-prevention standards could lead to the loss of some federal funding (it's not clear how much) and increase the county's exposure to civil lawsuits.

"You can't be sure there's no sexual contact going on unless you're standing outside a cell," says Lt. Mary Lindstrand, who's been coordinating compliance with the law for the Sheriff's Office. "And you can't stand outside everyone's cell 24 hours a day."

Corrections officers do nightly rounds twice an hour.

"We can say there was nothing happening when we looked into a cell during rounds," Giusto says. "But how can we prove there was no sexual contact before or after?"

No decision has been made about how to proceed. And the real question, Giusto says, will be how well the Sheriff's Office, and thereby the county, could defend itself in court against double-bunked prisoners who say unwanted sex was allowed to happen despite the new law.

"We're way ahead of where many agencies are," says Giusto. "A lot of agencies don't realize how far-reaching this is going to be."

One solution, says Sheriff's spokesman Lt. Jason Gates, would be to house the inmates at the mothballed Wapato jail, which has 525 beds. But there's little political will to put county prisoners into the facility, whose operating budget remains unfunded.

Double bunking has already been criticized in a recent corrections report from the Multnomah County District Attorney's office as a safety problem. The 2005 beating death of a 43-year-old inmate was blamed on him being housed with a dangerous, violent offender without enough supervision. The county settled a lawsuit filed by the inmate's family for $120,000.

And it's not just county sheriff's offices that face the new rules. The Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 applies to all federal, state and local lock-ups. The federal law stipulates, however, that the new guidelines should not "impose substantial additional costs"—a notion some might apply to getting rid of the county's shared cells.

The act also sets standards for detecting, preventing and punishing sexual assaults, as well as requiring facilities to collect standardized data on incidents.

Oregon state Department of Corrections officials say they have no plans to get rid of double bunks, but will look at isolating potentially problematic inmates on a case-by-case basis.

Since 2003, there have been seven sexual incidents reported and investigated by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. One involved cellmates. In one notorious case from May, a male inmate snuck into a female inmate's cell for a tryst and then had to press the call button to get out afterward.

Little data is currently available about sexual assault in prisons and jails, which is often unreported give the stigma and fear of retaliation. But figures cited in the anti-rape act estimate that more than 1 in 10 are likely victimized.

The new approach stresses "zero tolerance," Lt. Lindstrand says. "We need to change the culture so that it's understood it's not acceptable to be sexually assaulted if you go to prison," she says.

 
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