Most of the front page of yesterday's Times Union was taken up by a story headlined: "Cruel, but not unusual," with the drophed: "Great Meadow in Washington County ranks 5th worst nationwide for inmate sex abuse." Says the lede: "Behind the walls of Great Meadow Correctional Facility, less than 75 miles from the state Capitol, an old stereotype remains hauntingly true: Go to prison, risk rape."
This succeeded in getting my attention because prison rape is a genuinely awful thing, and I had not thought the rate of it was worse than average in New York state. I still don't think so. The story is based on the percentages of inmates who report sexual assaults by a fellow inmate or staff member. The nationwide rate, according to the story, is 4.5 percent, and at Great Meadow the rate is 11.3 percent.
But it turns out that when you break the Great Meadow figure down, only 3 percent involves alleged inmate-on-inmate abuse, and 9.3 percent is the alleged staff-on-inmate rate. This seems odd on its face, because all the inmates at this maximum security facility and the overwhelming majority of guards are male. It is well known that heterosexual prisoners deprived of female company may turn to homosexual sex and sometimes rape, but the guards suffer no similar deprivation. The story provides no actual evidence for any incident of a Great Meadow prison guard raping or sexually abusing an inmate.
To its credit, the TU story quotes the Department of Corrections spokesman, Erik Kriss, who "attributed the Great Meadow numbers to pat-and-frisk searches to find contraband." It also quotes the correction officers' union president, Donn Rowe, who notes that "Some of the people making these allegations are not in the situation they're in for being honest people." No one in the story disputes these remarks, and they seem to me to account for the numbers. That is to say, inmates are complaining about the way guards pat them down in searches for contraband. Their complaints may or may not have merit. But they don't amount to an epidemic of guards raping inmates, or justify the TU sensationalizing this story to the point of distortion.