Isle inmates' plight spurs tighter security


POSTED: Tuesday, September 15, 2009

WHEELWRIGHT, Ky. » Investigators from the Kentucky Department of Corrections called for security improvements at a private Appalachian women's prison to protect inmates from being sexually assaulted by male guards.

State investigators looked into the handling of 18 alleged cases of sexual misconduct by guards in the past three years at the Otter Creek Correctional Complex in this tiny coal town some 150 miles southeast of Lexington. Investigators made 14 recommendations to protect the more than 400 female inmates, including basic strategies like assigning female guards to supervise the women in their sleeping quarters.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jennifer Brislin said yesterday that a two-month probe by her agency turned up seven new allegations of sexual misconduct that she said will be reviewed for possible criminal and administrative charges.

Perched on a mountainside above Wheelwright, the Otter Creek prison came under public scrutiny earlier this summer when female inmates from Hawaii complained that they had been the subject of sexual assaults by their male guards. Corrections officials in Hawaii recently removed 165 inmates from Otter Creek, citing safety concerns.

Steve Owen, spokesman for Corrections Corp. of America, said the Tennessee-based company fully cooperated with Kentucky's investigation.

“;We have a zero-tolerance policy for that kind of conduct, and we're going to fully support full prosecution,”; he said.

The medium-security prison, surrounded by fences and razor wire, employs about 190 people in this hardscrabble town which is struggling from job losses in the coal industry. While some communities fight to keep prisons out, Wheelwright and other Appalachian towns have welcomed prisons in because of the jobs they create.

The Rev. John Rausch, head of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, has voiced concern about the growing number of federal and state prisons that have been built in the mountain region in recent years. Rausch said inmates who are often shipped in from hundreds, even thousands of miles away are reduced to “;the status of commodities”; by using them for job creation.

Kentucky Corrections Commissioner LaDonna Thompson said finding enough women willing to work as corrections officers at Otter Creek has been difficult. That, she said, had resulted in male guards supervising female inmates in areas of the prison where female guards would be a better option.

Owen said his company has already taken steps to prevent sexual assaults in the prison, built on a flat spot carved out of a Floyd County mountainside. Those steps include the installation of video cameras that he said will be a deterrent to sexual misconduct and will help investigators determine future allegations' validity.

Investigators from the Department of Corrections recommended yesterday that security cameras be installed and that staffers be assigned to monitor the cameras. They also recommended that the company hire more female corrections officers, conduct a security assessment of all areas of the prison vulnerable to sexual assaults, and train all staffers on provisions of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Justice Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown said last week that the state will not renew a contract to house inmates at Otter Creek unless Corrections Corp. of America hires a female security chief and hires a security staff that is at least 40 percent female.

Brislin said sexual misconduct charges have been substantiated against only five corrections officers at Otter Creek since 2007.

“;The rogue actions of a few bad apples has really led to a very unfortunate characterization of the entire work force at that institution,”; Owen said.