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Archive for Thursday, April 14, 2011

Feds to investigate Topeka women’s prisons

April 14, 2011

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— The U.S. Department of Justice has notified Gov. Sam Brownback that it is investigating whether the civil rights of female inmates at the Topeka Correctional Facility were violated by sexual relationships between inmates and guards and unsafe living conditions.

The investigation comes after The Topeka Capital-Journal reported in 2009 and 2010 on sexual impropriety among inmates and corrections officers. Other stories documented use of inmate labor to remove cancer-causing asbestos from prison buildings.

Ray Roberts, the secretary of the Kansas Department of Corrections, said Wednesday that the agency would fully cooperate with justice department officials.

The department's civil rights division hasn't reached any conclusions about the investigation and would consider all relevant information, including the state's efforts to bring the prison in compliance with federal law, said Thomas Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general.

"It has been our experience that when a state or local jurisdiction makes a good-faith effort to work with us during an investigation, we are able to resolve the investigation more quickly and more satisfactorily for all concerned," Perez said in a letter received by Brownback on April 7.

The problems detailed in the Capital-Journal's reports occurred when Roger Werholtz was the state corrections secretary. Roberts was appointed to the job when Brownback took office in January.

"The administration has complete confidence in Secretary Roberts and his commitment to ensuring public safety and success of the Department of Corrections' mission," said Sherriene Jones-Sontag, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Former inmates and employees told the newspaper they were exposed to thick asbestos-tainted dust during renovation projects in 2005 and 2006. Some workers said they wore paper masks, while others said they had no protective gear or specialized training. They said state corrections department managers ignored complaints about working conditions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded in March 2010 that the corrections department did not follow federal law while removing the asbestos.

Beginning in October 2009, The Capital-Journal reported on sexual offenses by prison employees. A plumbing instructor who impregnated an inmate and a corrections officer who drove inmates to secluded places for sex were later convicted of felony offenses in Shawnee County District Court.

The Legislature responded by increasing the felony penalty level for unlawful sexual relations between staff members and prisoners.

And Warden Richard Koerner was reassigned after an audit by the National Institute of Corrections called for improving security and training at the prison.

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