Did the Marion County Jail’s Intake Facility Get a Bad Rap?

Last year, a Department of Justice survey identified it as the worst in the country for staff sexual misconduct against inmates. But officials here say the real crime is the report.

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Illustration by Lincoln Agnew
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

Attorney Kevin Murray takes pride in the changes he has helped institute in the Marion County corrections system. In 2003, shortly after Murray managed Frank Anderson’s successful bid to become sheriff, the two men went to work on resolving Indiana’s longest lawsuit, legal action brought on in 1972 by inmates who argued the squalid living conditions at the Marion County Jail were unconstitutional. The lawsuit was settled in 2007, and after a series of much-needed improvements like hiring a new food-service vendor and contracting with a healthcare provider that specializes in correctional facilities instead of relying on a handful of local physicians, Murray says the operation now ranks in the “top one-half percent of all departments in the country.”

But last year, a federal report offered a very different take. According to a survey from the Department of Justice, Marion County’s intake facility downtown recorded the nation’s highest rate of staff sexual misconduct against inmates, unseating the notorious Baltimore City Detention Center. When a Maryland radio-
station reporter called Murray with the news and wanted a comment, the journalist referred to the Indy-based post as the new “sexual hellhole” of the country. “I almost fell off my chair,” Murray says. “We were shocked.”

A recent federal investigation revealed that BCDC inmates were effectively running the asylum. One inmate had fathered five children with four female guards (sexual relations between inmates and staff is a felony). “In the corrections world, everyone knows about Baltimore,” Murray says. “There’s all kinds of sexual activity going on—on both sides of the bars.”

The DOJ report, though, indicated conditions were even worse at Marion County’s intake facility. There, the anonymous survey of inmates showed 7.7 percent of 62 respondents reported experiencing some type of sexual misconduct at the hands of staffers—four times the national average.

The headlines shoved Indiana into the national spotlight, and a more recent political move has kept it there. In May, Governor Mike Pence sent word to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that Indiana’s 25 state facilities and 115 lockups wouldn’t follow federal guidelines to reduce prison rape and sexual abuse, joining just six other states ignoring the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Pence wrote that while he shared the goal to “prevent sexual assault against incarcerated persons,” implementing PREA guidelines “would require the redirection of millions of tax dollars currently supporting other critical needs for Indiana.”

The decision would have raised eyebrows anywhere. And in a state with a jail that had so recently been red-flagged, albeit one run by the county, it looked particularly bad.

But the perception doesn’t meet reality, according to Murray. The sheriff’s department finds so little truth to the DOJ report that officials haven’t made a single change in policy or procedure in the year-plus since it was released. Nor has anyone been fired as a direct result.

The real crime, Murray says, is the report.

 

That would make the bad guy Dr. Allen Beck, the senior statistical advisor who authored the National Inmate Survey-3, the report in question. But Beck stands by his work, noting that he has presided over two previous reports (in 2007 and 2008) and never received a complaint from Marion County until now. “Correctional administrations are free to question the results,” he says, “but it’s hazardous to distrust what victims report. From past surveys, we see clear indications that we’re picking up what’s going on.”

Still, Beck’s not surprised Marion County officials were startled by the results. “It’s designed to collect information that officials don’t know about and can’t know about,” he says. “It’s designed to collect that information that doesn’t come to the surface.”

Beck explains that because the survey is anonymous and confidential, it gives inmates an opportunity to come forward when they normally would not for fear of retribution or shame—just as with any other sexual-abuse victim. He allows that false reporting may exist but adds that the survey is constructed in a way that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for inmates to collude and weave together a consistent story. Underreporting remains of equal concern. In the introduction that accompanies the survey, Beck writes, “Although the effects may be offsetting, the relative extent of underreporting and false reporting in the NIS-3 is unknown.”

Murray contends that caveat throws the entire study into question. “I don’t know what to think,” he says. During the period information for the report was gathered, between February 2011 and May 2012, Murray says there were no grievances or legal complaints of staff sexual misconduct against inmates. “Those are the tools we use to determine if there’s a problem.”

After collecting the data, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the arm of the DOJ that actually conducts the survey, scours the information and tests it for accuracy. For instance, it throws out interviews that took fewer than 10 minutes to complete and eliminates those that have three or more inconsistencies.

Still, after the data was “cleaned,” five of the 62 respondents in Marion County alleged sexual misconduct, what Beck has called a “huge number.”

But it’s one Murray thinks is fictitious.

“If there’s something wrong here, let me know. The report is unintelligible.”

“You have to consider who is here,” he says. “I spend much of my day dealing with issues where the inmate has told a lawyer that they’re not getting proper healthcare. Then, when I have the inmate’s lawyer meet with the doctor, they learn the truth. Our constituency is here for a reason—they’ve been charged with a crime. I think the survey was conducted with people who scammed the system. That’s the best I can determine.”

Chris Daley finds Murray’s logic absurd. Daley, an Indianapolis native, works for Just Detention International, a human-rights organization that seeks to end detainee sexual abuse. “Sure, any survey is going to have its weaknesses,” he says. “But if the point is that they lied, why would people in Indianapolis be more likely to lie at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country?”

Murray doesn’t have an answer for that, but he finds fault with other aspects of Beck’s work. First, he says the area the feds supposedly surveyed, referred to as the “Marion Co. Jail Intake Facility” in the report, “doesn’t exist” as a residential area. It’s a small processing center located beneath the garage of the City-County Building, near a tunnel that leads to Marion County Jail 1 on South Alabama Street. “No one’s held there,” he says of the space, which typically houses suspects for only a few hours but does include an area with 35 beds. “It’s what I call the front door to the jail.”

More importantly, Murray says he doesn’t understand or know how to interpret the data in the report—and hasn’t been able to find anyone who can. The Marion County Sheriff’s Office reached out to the U.S. Attorney General’s office, and current Sheriff John Layton has spoken with Vice President Joe Biden and written to President Obama. “I’m a Democrat,” Murray says. “I voted for the president, but I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in the treatment this office has received in this matter.”

Murray also sought the help of Dr. Jyoti Sarkar in IUPUI’s department of mathematical sciences. “His people couldn’t even figure it out,” Murray says. “At that point, I told the sheriff that we’ve done everything we can do.” In a correspondence with Murray, Sarkar wrote that he didn’t “think any of our statisticians have the expertise to interpret the findings of the report.” When asked by IM to clarify his remarks, Sarkar explained: “The report is simply a snapshot of a reality that someone picked. It’s not meaningful until I’m provided with a statistical framework or basis, which isn’t explicitly stated there.”

The sheriff and Murray have been in contact with Beck. The statistician characterizes those conversations—two rounds of written correspondence and a phone call—as “angry” and “not typical.” Murray feels they were unproductive and, ultimately, unsatisfying. He complains that the information he’s been given skimps on specifics, which he contends Beck won’t or can’t provide. “If there’s something wrong here, let me know,” Murray says. “The report is unintelligible. The intent of the legislation behind the report was to do a study that would allow people to fix something that’s broken. To do that, you have to have something that’s intelligible and understandable—more than just numbers.”

However, in an interview with IM, Beck offered plenty of details about the alleged abuses at Marion County. “The majority of the victims were abused by male staff,” he says. “At least one of the respondents was victimized by a female staffer. All said they were victimized multiple times—two incidents was the most common response. One victim said five times, one said six to 10 times, and one said at least 11. The majority of the alleged activity came during the victims’ first 24 hours in the facility, and the majority happened at night, from midnight until 6 a.m. The alleged activity occurred throughout the facility in areas accessible to staff, as opposed to a shower or sleeping area.”

Although it appears that none of the victims had sought medical attention for a related injury, nor had any of them reported the allegations to staff, Beck says that’s common. And Daley, the human-rights organization representative, agrees. “Ninety percent of the victims are men, and guys, in general, just aren’t going to come forward and talk about it,” Daley says. “It’s incredibly hard to get attorneys to take on these kinds of cases because they are difficult to prove and even tougher to prosecute. Judges and juries aren’t usually sympathetic, and, when they are, the awards don’t amount to much. It’s really tough to get on people’s radars, and these victims are just left to carry around an incredible amount of shame.”

 

Shortly after the DOJ released its report in May 2013, the Marion County Jail was audited by the American Correctional Association, an organization that sets standards and practices, and won
reaccreditation with a higher score than it earned in 2010. The correctional facility is one of the only county-run, ACA-endorsed institutions in the state, and a PREA-compliant one. (Under Pence’s direction, state-run facilities have not been certified as PREA-compliant, though all 24 have earned the ACA’s stamp.)

Murray says the ACA standards go above and beyond what the federal ones (PREA) require. Marion County Jail employees, for instance, receive yearly instruction under the ACA, whereas PREA training occurs just once. Additionally, signs in English and Spanish are posted throughout the facility to provide information on how to report sexual misconduct—details that are duplicated in a prison handbook given to detainees and an orientation video shown to incoming prisoners.

“We’re compliant with eight separate ACA standards that are in place to detect, handle, and prevent sexual misconduct,” Murray says, who maintains their record is good. “If this was broken, if this were the sexual hellhole of the country, you’d have thought someone would have noticed.”

“These people may need to have some of their liberty restricted, but it’s our responsibility to see that they aren’t harmed by that restriction.”

A few days after the DOJ report came out, a local deputy was fired for alleged sexual misconduct. Warren Hoosier, a 13-year employee of the sheriff’s office, was dismissed for inappropriately touching a female inmate, but the offense was unrelated to the allegations in the federal survey. “The sheriff has nothing to hide,” Murray says. “His attitude has always been just the opposite of that. Things are very open here.”

Daley, from Just Detention, believes that’s all well and good, but if Marion County won’t take the DOJ report seriously, none of it matters. “This should have been a wake-up call,” he says. “Sheriff Layton had two alternatives. He could have said, ‘I don’t believe these numbers, but I need to be sure and do something about it.’ But he chose the other path, one that’s a decade behind the times, and it’s a real shame.”

He says there’s an attitude in society that those who are incarcerated somehow deserve what they get, but Daley points out that not all detainees have been convicted (in Marion County, a significant portion of the inmate population is simply awaiting trial). And, even if that isn’t the case, it’s far too easy, he says, for people on the outside looking in to turn away.

“This is a human-rights crisis,” Daley says. “These people may need to have some of their liberty restricted, but it’s our responsibility to see that they aren’t harmed by that restriction. Any kind of sexual contact is a gross human-rights violation, and it compromises everything that a well-run system strives to do. Nearly everyone who goes in eventually comes out, and those who have been abused are going to be bringing that stress and trauma with them. That damage is going back out into the community.”

In July, Layton was named Indiana Sheriff of the Year by his peers, the first time a Marion County sheriff has won the award. In November, the Democrat is running for reelection and will face Emmitt Carney,
a Republican with 31 years of experience in law enforcement who served as a Special Agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Murray laments that the DOJ report is already being used as a political weapon against Layton. “Worse than Baltimore,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s not true, but it’s one hell of a headline.”

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