Sandusky runs risk of sexual assault in prison

Because of who he is and what he’s done, Jerry Sandusky could be

in particular danger of sexual assault when he is sent off to

prison this week.

With thousands of inmates raped behind bars in the U.S. each

year, statistics compiled by the federal government show that sex

offenders are roughly two to four times more likely than other

inmates to fall victim.

Sandusky, the 68-year-old former Penn State assistant football

coach, will be sentenced Tuesday for sexually abusing 10 boys in a

scandal that rocked the university and brought down coach Joe

Paterno. Sandusky is likely to spend the rest of his life in

prison.

It’s entirely possible that he will serve his time without

incident. His lawyer, Joe Amendola, said he expects Sandusky will

be housed with nonviolent offenders at a minimum-security prison,

and the Pennsylvania Corrections Department said it is committed to

the safety of all inmates, though it would not comment on what it

plans to do to protect Sandusky.

But it’s also true that child molesters are reviled inside

prison walls just as they are on the outside, and are often

subjected to physical and verbal abuse, including sexual assault.

Given the horrific nature of Sandusky’s crimes, will the public

care what happens to him in prison?

”The Sandusky case is one of those moments when our core

beliefs are really tested,” said Lovisa Stannow, executive

director of Just Detention International, a group that fights

prison rape. ”This is a moment when it’s especially crucial to

recognize that nobody ever deserves to be raped. No matter who you

are, sexual violence and rape is wrong, it’s a crime, and it is

something we have to fight.”

The U.S. corrections industry has long struggled with sexual

violence.

In 2008, more than 200,000 inmates in American prisons, jails

and juvenile detention centers were victims of sexual abuse,

according to the Justice Department. Male sex offenders were among

those at highest risk: Nearly 14 percent reported having been

sexually assaulted at least once while incarcerated.

Yet experts say rape isn’t an unavoidable consequence of prison

life. Justice Department statistics show wide variability in rates

of sexual abuse across prisons and jails. Wardens who are committed

to ending sexual violence, establishing clear policies against

abuse and holding their staffs accountable are likely to see fewer

problems.

”It’s all about management tone and style and leadership at the

top. If you hear about abuse and sort of roll your eyes and look

the other way, that sends a signal. If you tell the staff, `I want

to get to the bottom of this,’ that sends a signal,” said Jamie

Fellner, a prisons expert at Human Rights Watch.

In some ways, Sandusky, who has been held in isolation in a

county jail since he was found guilty in June, is not a prime

target for assault. Inmates who are young and small in stature are

more likely to be sexually victimized; Sandusky is a senior citizen

with an imposing frame. Other inmates at high risk include gay men,

those who have been previously victimized and those seen as timid

or feminine.

A convicted sex offender who spent 10 years in prison and now

works with other released sex offenders through the Pennsylvania

Prison Society said he believes Sandusky’s chances of assault are

low.

”Are people going to bother him? Yeah, but a lot of it’s going

to be verbal harassment – it’s not going to be physical,” said the

52-year-old man from the Philadelphia suburbs, who spoke on

condition of anonymity because of the stigma attached to sex

offenses. ”Because again, he’s an old guy; people aren’t into

that. The verbal abuse is probably going to be significant. He’s

going to have to have a thick skin.”

Lockups in Pennsylvania and across the nation are under a

federal mandate to curb sexual abuse.

The rules, which took effect in August under the Prison Rape

Elimination Act of 2003, require screening to identify inmates at

greater risk of sexual assault – and those more likely to sexually

offend – with an eye toward keeping them apart in housing and work

assignments.

Prisons must also offer at least two means of reporting abuse,

preserve evidence, ban retaliation against whistle-blowers, keep

juvenile offenders away from adult inmates, and devise plans for

adequate staffing and video monitoring. The presumptive punishment

for any staffer found to have sexually abused an inmate is

firing.

”You had corrections officials saying it’s not so bad, it’s not

so bad, it’s not so bad, and then you had the data saying it IS so

bad, it is a problem, it is prevalent,” said Fellner, who sat on

the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, the panel charged

by Congress with devising the new standards. ”I think at this

point, everybody understands this is serious.”

Pennsylvania’s policy for preventing sexual abuse dates to 2004.

New inmates must be screened, and anyone determined to be at

greater risk of sexual victimization is supposed to get his or her

own cell, or be placed in protective custody or in a special unit

for inmates in danger. Pennsylvania prisons hold about 6,800 sex

offenders.

”Inmates and their families should know that we do our utmost

to provide for inmate safety,” said Corrections Department

spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.

But a scandal unfolding at the state prison in Pittsburgh shows

that any policy is only as good as the people enforcing it. And

prisons have a long way to go in that regard. The national Justice

Department survey found that nearly as many inmates were victimized

by prison staff as by fellow inmates.

In the Pennsylvania case, prosecutors and lawsuits allege

systematic abuse of inmates serving time for sex crimes against

children. The suspected ringleader, veteran guard Harry Nicoletti,

faces 89 criminal counts after a grand jury concluded he raped and

beat inmates, directed other prisoners to soil the food and bedding

of his targets, and committed other abuses while working in the

prison’s F Block, for new inmates.

Nicoletti, 60, and three other guards charged in the case assert

they did nothing wrong and accuse the inmates of lying. The

defendants are awaiting trial.

The Corrections Department is compiling data on sexual assault

in its prisons and has hired a contractor to study conditions

behind bars.

Amendola, Sandusky’s attorney, said he hopes his client won’t

become a statistic.

”I suspect they’re going to take precautions against that,” he

said.

Associated Press writer Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg contributed

to this report.