Friday, March 07, 2008
Elmer Seetot (pictured at left), accused of chopping up a friend and putting the body parts in his grandmother's freezer in October 2007 after killing him in a domestic argument, is now charged with 23 counts of sexual assault against a fellow prisoner at the Anchorage, Alaska jail. Full story from the Anchorage Daily News and on KTUU Channel 2.
Seetot, 22, was arraigned this week on 28 charges, including the 23 counts of rape. According to the charging document, the assaults occurred over a period of five consecutive days in late November and early December 2007. Seetot and Berry Jack, who says he was the victim, shared a cell in the Echo Mod unit of the west wing of the Anchorage jail, officially called the Anchorage Correctional Complex West.
Jack, a 47-year-old Valdez man in jail on theft and forgery charges, said he feared for his life over the days the attacks occurred. He did not immediately tell prison guards what was happening to him every night because Seetot promised to kill him. Jack, a soft-spoken man whose hands shake from his bipolar medicine, said he felt safe enough to report what happened only after he moved to another section of the prison where he knew a correctional officer and trusted him. Jack says he's heard there's a bounty on him now for having reported Seetot.
In response to the charges, Alaska State Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt said everything was done properly the nights the attacks reportedly occurred, including regular half-hour checks of all the inmates in their cells. The Department of Corrections also says rapes in its institutions are rare, but inmates say the threat of sexual attack is always present and Corrections' claim is a fantasy. "It's kind of like a host and a parasite," said Johnny Johnson, an inmate not involved in the case. The weak, those most likely to be attacked, pair up with the more aggressive, exchanging sex for protection. Others who aren't lucky enough to have protection are preyed upon, he said.
Prisoners at the Anchorage jail complex are generally awaiting trial, and an in-depth evaluation of their potential for misbehavior is not done until after conviction, according to Schmidt. About 38,000 people are processed through Alaska penal institutions every year and the department just doesn't have the money or staff to thoroughly examine the past behavior of every person who shows up charged with a crime. Instead, prisoners are classified according to how they actually behave in custody. Murderers can be docile in jail and traffic violators can be aggressive.
Overcrowding also hinders better classification. On December 31st, 2007, the Anchorage Daily News reported about overcrowding at the Anchorage Jail. The daily population averages 950, about 100 over capacity. Many of the 9-foot by 10-foot cells, designed for two inmates, are filled with three. The prisoner unlucky enough to be the third in a cell sleeps on a temporary bed that looks like an oversized rubber sled and is called a "boat." It takes up nearly all the floor space, including underneath an unmovable metal chair sticking out from the wall. A July 31st, 2007 story aired by KTUU Channel 2 also addressed overcrowding.
Cindy Struckman-Johnson, a psychology professor at the University of South Dakota, has extensively researched prison rape. According to her research, classifying prisoners as soon as they enter the system, with a focus on identifying those who may be vulnerable, is one way of combating the problem. Nationally, sexual coercion runs run as high as 20 percent in some prisons. Prison culture and violent inmates using sex to act out or retaliate are among the contributing factors. And there are men who do it just for the sexual pleasure. Only about 30 percent of male prison victims report the assaults, she said.
To compensate for possible underreporting, the Department of Justice commissioned a National Inmate Survey, the results of which were released in December 2007. Click HERE to view this 48-page document in PDF format. Only one Alaska institution, Wildwood Correctional Center, was surveyed. Out of 121 inmates who completed the survey, five percent reported having been sexually assaulted.
Alaska corrections officials say only 72 Alaska inmates were disciplined or arrested for a sex charge involving another prisoner or staff member between 2004 and 2007. These statistics apply to about 3,300 inmates locked up in Alaska but don't include the 1,000 housed in an Arizona private prison on state contract. And it includes those caught engaging in consensual sex, said Alaska corrections spokesman Richard Schmitz. Only two were convicted of a sex crime, Schmitz said.
However, other inmates claim that, although the numbers may be low, there's a constant tension in the air, which means even nonviolent prisoners have to get tough and show aggression in order to avoid becoming a victim.
In an unrelated accusation of sexual abuse, local attorney Hugh Fleischer said he's days away from filing a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and a correctional officer for sexually molesting four different inmates.