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Latest study reveals high rates of sexual violence at two California prisons

by Chris Hinyub, published

A federal study has found that a couple of California prisons possess some of the highest incidences of sexual violence in the nation. While state prison officials are disputing the findings, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ report indicated that the California Medical Facility and Pleasant Valley State Prison ranked with six other prisons across the nation as “high rate” facilities based on the prevalence of “inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization.” Both averaged a prevalence rate of over 5.5 percent – a shocking figure considering the national rate for adult male inmates was 1.9 percent. At the time of the survey, Pleasant Valley housed 5,097 inmates while the California Medical Facility had 3,067.

The study was conducted nationally from October 2008 to December 2009 and was based on an extensive anonymous survey of 81,500 inmates concerning incidents that occurred within the previous 12 months.  The findings didn’t come without controversy. Debra Herndon, associate director at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that the report “vastly overstated” the scale of sexual violence in the two California prisons, citing her department’s own data which shows only 13 incidents of sexual violence between the two facilities throughout 2008-09. 

     “Our position here is that it (the report) didn’t accurately reflect the true numbers,” Herndon told California Watch. “Taking a look at all our numbers, I think we’re doing a pretty good job,” she said. Herndon was quick to point out California’s early adoption of laws intended to end sexual violence behind bars, adding, “We have a zero-tolerance approach.”

Some experts don’t think that Herndon’s official data serves the whole truth. As Linda McFarlane, deputy executive director of Just Detention International states, “It is widely accepted that official reports of sexual violence in prison do not reflect the reality of how many assaults are occurring.” McFarlane contends that sexual violence is one of the most under-reported crimes and that “barriers for reporting are even greater in prison.”

The lead author of the Bureau of Justice Statistics study, Allen Beck said survey responses showed marked consistency and that the findings were in line with an earlier federal study on sexual violence in American prisons. “You don’t have to take this data as the gold standard of truth, but you should take it seriously to look more closely at what is happening in some of these facilities,” he said.

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