Halt abuses, change prison culture

By The Mercury

Without excusing the insufficient efforts of either former Govs. Kathleen Sebelius or Mark Parkinson to confront allegations of sexual conduct and abuse at the Topeka Correctional Facility, it’s disappointing that Gov. Sam Brownback holds former Gov. Sebelius responsible for problems that have lingered well into his tenure.

The problems do indeed precede Gov. Brownback’s tenure; credible allegations were made public in 2009; Gov. Sebelius left office to join the Obama administration in April 2009 and was succeeded by Mr. Parkinson.

The 2009 complaints led to a probe after which the National Institute of Corrections in 2010 recommended a score of changes. The problems continued.

The Justice Department’s investigation began in April 2011, three months after Gov. Brownback was sworn in. And while it’s fair to fault previous governors for unresolved issues, it’s worth noting that a Justice Department letter to Gov. Brownback said abuse and sexual misconduct have continued even during the federal investigation — that is, during the Brownback years.

To his credit, Gov. Brownback has taken steps to address the misconduct. Among them was installing 100 new cameras. Saying the Brownback administration has made “immense strides,” the governor’s spokesperson said, “it will become clear that the constitutional rights of TCF inmates are protected by the State of Kansas in the Brownback administration.”

That is far from clear. In his letter, Thomas Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general in the Civil Rights Division, said, “We conclude that TCF fails to protect women prisoners from harm due to sexual abuse and misconduct from correctional staff and other prisoners in violation of their constitutional rights. The women at TCF universally fear for their own safety.”

The report also said the state and prison have not resolved “myriad systemic causes of harm” despite “well documented” investigations.

Fact is, Kansas has not done enough to eliminate the culture in which such prison abuses persist. What’s more, the Justice Department, along with the inmates and guards at the Topeka Correctional Facility and Department of Corrections staff, know it.

Rather than trying to shrug responsibility off to his predecessors, our present governor would be wiser to become the executive who dealt with this dreadful situation once and for all.

TCF houses individuals who break the law and deserve to be punished. Under no circumstances can it be a place where lawlessness is tolerated.

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