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Staff Allege Violence, Sexual Abuse At Kansas’s Only Juvenile Prison

Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service
Seven respondents to a survey of current and former Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex staff said they had been assaulted or attacked by other staff.

A state audit of Kansas’s only juvenile corrections facility uncovered allegations of violence between staff members and sexual relationships between workers and the underage inmates.

A survey attempted to reach 229 current and former employees of the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka. Only 48 responded.

But of those responding, seven people reported being attacked or assaulted by other staff. There were three reports of sexual relationships between staff and youth at the facility.

Other comments alleged that the facility falsified metrics by removing residents from solitary confinement during auditors’ visits.

Staff at the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit said that the number of responses was too low to draw definitive conclusions, but the comments were still cause for concern. The audit did not verify the responses, which were anonymous.

“The responses do provide some insight into the culture at the facility,” wrote Legislative Post Auditor Justin Stowe in the report.

Kansas state Sen. Anthony Hensley and state Rep. John Alcala requested the audit following the assault of a KJCC employee in December 2017. Kyle Rohr, then superintendent of the facility, was convicted of battery this July for grabbing an accountant’s arm after she failed to gather enough volunteers for a Christmas party. Rohr resigned following the conviction.

Alcala said he was concerned about the work environment at the facility and the culture of management at the Kansas Department of Corrections.

“No one should have to be working in that type of environment,” he said. “Physical contact, from staff to staff, employee to employee, should be zero tolerance.”

As of July’s audit, KJCC housed 171 residents aged 13 through 21. The Topeka facility provides maximum- and medium-security detention for young people convicted of charges that would be considered felonies if they were adults.

The state previously audited the KJCC in 2012, finding issues with management, safety, training and staff discipline. A follow-up audit in 2015 found that some of the problems had been resolved, while others, like outdated policies and inadequate supervision of youth at the facility, were not adequately addressed.

Credit Nomin Ujiyediin / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
The Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex in Topeka housed 171 youth in July 2018, when the state conducted an audit of the facility's workplace culture.

This year’s audit received fewer responses and revealed mixed perspectives. Six respondents to the survey agreed with the statement that “Employee morale at KJCC is high,” while 23 employees disagreed. Sixteen respondents agreed that “Appropriate actions are taken when staff violate policies,” while 21 disagreed. Twenty-three respondents agreed that they feel safe working at the facility and 12 disagreed.

Some survey respondents agreed that they felt intimidated or threatened by co-workers or management. Some agreed that they feared retaliation from peers or management.

“Staff should never be in fear of termination on a daily basis and many are scared if they ‘screw up,’ they will be fired. Even for minor things,” commented one respondent.

Another survey comment: “Anyone that speaks out about staff safety or any issues is targeted until the staff can no longer take the abuse and quits.”

The audit also received multiple comments reflecting “a pervasive ‘boys’ club’ mentality that provides preferential treatment to favored staff and encourages others to quit if they are unhappy,” and lenient treatment of residents “which puts staff in danger.”

Andy Brienzo, who conducted the audit, said the results couldn’t be projected onto every KJCC employee, but they accurately reflected the opinions of the 48 respondents.

“When you have a number of people saying similar things, or saying the same thing on a survey,” he said in a phone interview, “that lends some gravity to what they’re saying.”

Kansas Department of Corrections spokesman Samir Arif declined to comment on personnel matters. He said allegations of sexual assault are investigated according to guidelines set by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

“It is absolutely the duty of every staff member of the Kansas Department of Corrections to report if there are sexual assault allegations,” Arif said.

Arif said the department had a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual abuse, but he did not clarify whether the policy included termination of employment or prosecution. Under Kansas law, incarcerated people are unable to consent to sexual activities with corrections staff.

Mike Fonkert, a juvenile justice advocate at nonprofit Kansas Appleseed, said the survey results reflected a need for change at the management level.

“These are the kids with the highest needs,” he said. “If we’ve got a facility that has infighting and staff problems… it’s not difficult to imagine that they’re not getting what they need.”

Alcala, who requested the KJCC audit, agreed.

“Any time you’re talking about a hostile work environment, physical contact, sexual assault or sexual affairs, I think that is a priority,” Alcala said. “If the corrections director hasn’t seen that and looked at that and immediately addressed it, what does that tell you?”

Nomin Ujiyediin is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @NominUJ.

 Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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