Topeka TOPEKA — Federal officials who threatened to sue Kansas over what they say is rampant sexual abuse of inmates at the state women’s prison didn’t consider aggressive steps taken to address the problem, Gov. Sam Brownback said Friday.
Brownback said he wants to meet personally with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder about the letter sent Thursday by the head of the Justice Department’s Division of Civil Rights. The letter said sexual misconduct by staff and inmates at the Topeka Correctional Facility violated inmates’ civil rights and warned a lawsuit was possible if the division didn’t feel the state was doing enough to correct the problems by late October.
State Department of Corrections officials backed the governor up, saying incidents at the prison have been rare since the beginning of 2011. They said there’s been only one confirmed case of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse, no confirmed incidents involving staff misconduct against inmates and no reports of inmates becoming pregnant while in the prison.
Brownback’s office also released a February 2012 letter from the Justice Department’s Federal Bureau of Prisons, which said it found “no deficiencies” at the women’s prison in the previous year. The federal bureau is housing four inmates there.
Brownback acknowledged the prison had serious problems before he took office in January 2011. But he said he has full confidence in Corrections Secretary Ray Roberts, who took office a few weeks after Brownback did, and Warden Hope Cooper, who was appointed last year.
Under their tenure, the prison has added staff, boosted employees’ pay, enacted new policies and installed more than 100 new security cameras, Brownback and Roberts said.
The governor suggested the Division of Civil Rights assessment was based on outdated information. He and Roberts said the division hasn’t been in contact with state officials about problems at the prison since a visit in May 2011.
“If they have more current information, or they have different information than the Bureau of Prisons, I want to see it,” Brownback told reporters. “They popped this out, and I think without knowledge of what actually has been taking place, and that’s deeply concerning to me.”
The Justice Department stood by the conclusions in Thursday’s letter. Spokeswoman Nanda Chitre said in an email that its conclusions were based not only on the visit to the prison but interviews with inmates and prison officials and an “extensive” review of documents.
“Many of the reforms cited by the Governor, including the removal of the prior warden and the installation of cameras, were already in place at the time of our tour,” Chitre said.
Along with the other improvements, Cooper said the prison is addressing the division’s concern about most of the 249 staff members at the women’s prison being men. She said the overall percentage of male staff is now a little lower than the 68 percent cited in the letter, and the prison is actively recruiting women, who now make up 47 percent of entry-level officers.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of progress, just in 18 months,” Roberts said.
But Keen Umbehr, a Topeka-area attorney who has represented the prison’s inmates in criminal cases and investigates their complaints, expressed doubt that the problems had been adequately addressed. He said inmates fear retaliation and that former inmates who are on probation are afraid to speak out for fear of being returned to prison.
“The governor is going to try to soft-shoe this and whitewash this,” Umbehr said.
The prison housed 719 offenders as of Friday, including the four federal prisoners. Cooper led an hour-long tour for reporters.
Brownback’s office has said problems at the prison were allowed to “fester” during the administration of Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who left office in April 2009 to become U.S. health and human services secretary. Potential problems — including sexual abuse of inmates by staff — were highlighted by the Topeka Capital-Journal in a series of stories starting in October 2009.
A National Institute of Corrections report in January 2010 recommended more than two dozen changes, and then-Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson’s administration reassigned the prison’s warden.
The Justice Department launched its investigation in April 2011.