Prisoner sex case throws light on some dark secrets

Newly admitted prisoners at the Johnson County Jail are taken to a video conference room for their first appearance before a judge. RICH SUGG/The Kansas City Star_10252010.
Newly admitted prisoners at the Johnson County Jail are taken to a video conference room for their first appearance before a judge. RICH SUGG/The Kansas City Star_10252010. Rich Sugg

They are, in every sense, captive victims.

And people incarcerated in the country’s jails and prisons are especially vulnerable and often powerless to protect themselves when they fall into the sexual sights of the men and women tasked with guarding them, experts say.

In the Kansas City area’s most recent case, a former deputy with the Johnson County sheriff’s office pleaded guilty this week to a felony charge related to an incident last year with a female prisoner.

Such situations have been a persistent concern across the country, and they can jeopardize the safety and security of institutions as well as prisoners and prison staff.

A national study published last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 5.3 percent of former state prison inmates reported being involved in sexual activity with prison staff during their most recent incarceration.

“Sadly, this type of case is all too common in U.S. prisons and jails,” said Lovisa Stannow, executive director for Just Detention International.

Johnson County prosecutors charged Vernon Finkenbinder, 40, in October with unlawful sexual relations in an incident involving a 24-year-old female prisoner. He pleaded guilty Monday to an amended charge of aggravated battery as part of a plea agreement that required him to surrender his law enforcement certification.

It was the second 2012 incident in the Kansas City area involving a county corrections officer accused of having sexual contact with a female inmate.

In June, a former Wyandotte County deputy pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual relations. Robert Saladrigas, 25, was placed on probation in August and ordered to participate in a sexual offender treatment program. He also was required to register with the state as a sexual offender.

Most inmates who reported sexual contact with staff said they were willing participants, according to the national study.

In the Johnson County case, an attorney for the deputy said it was an unusual case because it appeared to be a “calculated plan” on the part of the inmate to target Finkenbinder.

“The victim had a case pending at the time of the incident and she wrote another inmate that ‘…this is my only chance and get out of jail free card,’ ” said attorney Trey Pettlon.

But under the law, sexual contact between a corrections officer and a prisoner is illegal regardless of whether it was consensual.

“Vernon knows that what he did is inexcusable, and he accepted responsibility for his actions promptly when the matter came to light and now in court,” Pettlon said.

Some victim advocates question what level of consent there can be in such cases because of the imbalance of power between a corrections officer and a prisoner.

“When one party holds the key — literally — to the other’s freedom, there can be no such thing as a consensual relationship,” Stannow said.

Even in cases where physical force is not used, people in a position of power over someone else have other avenues of coercion at their disposal, said Jennifer Marsh, vice president of victim services for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

The national study backs that up.

Even many “willing” prisoners reported that they were subjected to coercion, such as offers of special favors, privileges or protection.

In a 2010 Kansas case, a former guard at the Topeka Correctional Facility was charged with having sex with three female inmates. Two of the three women reported that they were pressured into having sex in the officer’s patrol car. Nathan VanDyke later pleaded no contest to two counts of unlawful sexual relations, according to court records.

Of the former prisoners reporting sexual contact with staff in the national study, about 6,300 said they were unwilling victims of sexual activity.

Nearly half of them said they were physically forced or threatened into the sexual contact. Fifteen percent of unwilling victims reported some type of physical injury, according to the report.

The study also showed that 46 percent of those who reported being sexually abused by staff said that they were charged with some type of facility infraction after reporting the incident to officials.

“With such blatant retaliation for reporting abuse, it’s no wonder the vast majority of prisoner rape survivors choose to remain silent,” Stannow said in a statement when the study was released last year. “The failure of many corrections officials to treat sexual abuse within their facilities as a serious crime, and the cynicism of punishing those who report having been abused is simply stunning.”

The vast majority, nearly 80 percent, of reported sexual activity involved male prisoners and female staff, according to the study.

Several of the most highly publicized cases in recent years in Kansas and Missouri have involved male convicted murderers who were aided in escaping by female prison staffers with whom they had developed personal relationships.

In 2006, convicted Johnson County killer John Manard escaped from the Lansing Correctional Facility. He hid in a dog crate in a vehicle driven by Toby Young, who ran a prison dog training program.

And in 1999, convicted murderer Terry Banks escaped from the Crossroads Correctional Facility in Cameron, Mo., with the help of guard Lynette Barnett, who provided him with a guard uniform that he wore out of the facility.

Both women were prosecuted for aiding those escapes.

Lt. Kelli Bailiff of the Wyandotte County sheriff’s office said those cases show the kinds of security breaches that can occur with such relationships.

Officers are trained to avoid becoming entangled in those situations, she said. And beyond the security concerns, corrections officials have an obligation to safeguard the welfare of the prisoners entrusted to their care.

“We need to be held to a higher standard, and rightly so,” Bailiff said. “It’s against the law. Bottom line.”