Indiana is one of seven states that will not attempt to meet new federal guidelines for the Prison Rape Elimination Act. The act was first created in 2003 to address sexual assault in the nation’s lockups. More specific standards were created in 2012 and states had until this year to comply. However Indiana has not met those guidelines.
Mike Pence was a member of United States House of Representatives in 2003 when PREA was passed without opposition by both houses of Congress. However, now that he’s in the governor’s office, he says the law is too costly and burdensome.
Pence sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder in May saying Indiana would not even attempt to comply with the new standards.
State PREA Director Says Compliance Would Be Too Costly
Indiana is one of seven states refusing the baseline of compliance which means pledging to spend five percent of its federal funding on meeting the PREA standards.
Bryan Pearson is the state Director for Indiana’s PREA Compliance. He oversees the state’s 25 correctional facilities and says total compliance would cost the state millions of dollars they don’t have, with the biggest cost driver being manpower. The federal standards require a staffing ration of one correction officer to eight offenders during the day.
“For us to have met that standard we would have had to have spent in excess of $5 million dollars added to our annual budget to add the staff to those facilities – so therefore, we were going to be non-compliant with that standard and those facilities,” Pearson says.
So the state will forfeit its Federal funding and Pearson has instead decided to create an internal auditing process.
Pearson says new internal guidelines encourage staff to look for warning signs of abuse and inmates are educated on how to report an assault.
Prison Environment Seeing Gradual Change
Leonard Goodman has been serving time at the Pendleton correction facility for 8 years. He was incarcerated at the prison in Michigan City prior to Pendleton. He says the climate of sexual assault and reporting violent acts behind bars has changed gradually.
“I never experienced any kind of sexual encounters or anything like that but I’ve seen it,” Goodman says. “I been down all these years and I’ve heard things and I’ve seen things and I would say, it’s better now.”
Goodman says the prison’s environment is getting better in part due to increased awareness. Signs hang on the walls at Pendleton informing prisoners how to report abuse. Kiosks let them report any abuse anonymously.
“They have been posting signs and letting guys know and letting them feel that you know they can always come to staff,” Goodman says. “You give those guys that kind of information it gives them a little more hope.”
Lieutenant Roberta Kramer oversees more than 220 inmates at Pendleton and says interaction with the population through PREA rounds is key to keeping them safe.
“I will check for anything out of the norm – an offender that may look like something is wrong, he’s shaken up, he wants to talk, he’s not been out of his room,” Kramer says.
Cameras also monitor almost every square inch of the high-security facility.
Juvenile Detention Facility Faces Even Greater Challenges
Across the street from the Pendleton adult complex is the juvenile facility.
A report the Department of Justice issued in 2012, called it one of the “most sexualized juvenile facilities in the United States.”
Rates of sexual abuse at the juvenile facility are more than three times the national average. One of the reasons is that all of the state’s juvenile sexual offenders are sentenced at Pendleton.
As far as PREA is concerned, Juvenile facilities pose an even greater challenge for compliance.
The new federal standards require that prison staff of the same sex monitor juvenile offenders during showers and require a higher ratio of staff to offenders.
Prison officials say they have responded by locating and closing off areas that were more difficult to monitor.
Juvenile cells have more glass which makes it easier for guards to monitor activity. However, sexual offenders are often still housed together.
Superintendent of Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility, Linda Commons, says the environment of the facility is in part due to the age of those incarcerated.
“They’re teenage boys and they’re going through adolescence,” Commons says. “They’re going through puberty and they’re having normal thoughts and feelings of a sexual nature and yet they’re in a confined space.”
Commons says these circumstances lead to sexual contact between students and sometimes even escalate to inappropriate relationships between students and staff.
She says in addition to increasing staff training, the state is trying to keep young offenders at the local level where they can receive treatment and counseling.
The numbers at Pendleton have gone down from 300 students in 2006, to half that many now. The ratio of staff to offenders is getting closer to compliance but it’s not there yet.
Legislator Thinks State Has Duty To Protect The Incarcerated
State Representative Christina Hale, D-Indianapolis, thinks no expense should be spared to ensure the safety of the incarcerated. She says with a state surplus of more than $2 billion, Indiana could afford to comply with PREA and thinks it has a moral obligation to do so.
“We have to remember that the bad guys are coming back to live in our communities and one day they might be our neighbor.” ~ Christina Hale
“I think that’s just a basic expectation that children in our juvenile detention centers are safe from these kinds of crimes and if it means spending $5 million to build a facility where our children can be safe then I think that the ethically right decision to make,” Hale says.
Hale says as the legislature continues to reform the criminal code, the state should focus more on rehabilitation so that offenders can re-enter society successfully.
“It’s hard to talk about treating people well in prison, because everybody gets angry at the bad guys, but we have to remember that the bad guys are coming back to live in our communities and one day they might be our neighbor,” Hale says.
Governor Mike Pence declined a statement for this story.