I could hardly believe my eyes at first. Then revulsion gave way to outrage.
I was sitting in a Polk County, Iowa courtroom watching a clip from a smut film. It was one the state of Iowa had casually shown to disturbed and mentally ill prison inmates, including convicted sex offenders. Not as part of treatment, but for their enjoyment, like on movie night at camp.
On Wednesday the clip from “Deranged” was shown to jurors as evidence in a prison employee’s case against the state. In it, a killer was scooping out a woman’s eye with a spoon, slicing open her scalp and removing the brain matter, blood gushing everywhere. Subsequent scenes showed a man groping a woman who was tied to a chair. He untied her but later chased her, beating her bloody, then hung her naked body upside down and skinned it.
A female juror looked downward. During a break afterward, plaintiff Kristine Sink wept openly.
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Sink, a corrections officer, began serving in 2003 in the clinical care unit at the maximum-security Iowa State Penitentiary. As a series of emails to her higher-ups show, she tried repeatedly to get movies showing rape and dismemberment of women stopped, including this one. Merely having to see them was a form of sexual harassment, Sink wrote. But after watching them, inmates acted out with threats to beat, murder and rape her, and exposed themselves to her, her suit alleges.
So much is wrong with this situation, it’s hard to know where to begin.
What conceivable benefit could prison officials have believed would come of showing mentally ill and disturbed inmates movies celebrating violence and degradation, including, according to Sink’s claim, pedophilia and gang rapes? What if they affirmed the twisted fantasies of some mentally ill ones? How did that square with a prison policy forbidding inmates from receiving written publications with “patently offensive” imagery? If officials started out ignorant about films like these, wouldn’t the years of Sink’s complaint, beginning in 2003, have made them at least take a look?
Instead, she alleges, she was told by a warden in 2003 and 2004 never to bring it up again. She later was chastised for insubordination after shutting off a movie in a common area. She maintained other supervisors had told her to do that.
Ultimately, the Iowa Department of Corrections dismissed her claims of harassment. So she filed suit in 2012. She still works at the prison but now is in a control center rather than directly with inmates.
I heard officials testify last week that it would have cost money to separate the clinical care unit viewing channel from the general population’s – as if the general population simply had to see the despicable films. I heard it acknowledged that no one investigated Sink’s complaints of sexual harassment or violence by so much as interviewing her.
I heard the director of prison security testify Sink had complained to her 10 or 15 times, but that she hadn’t even looked at the movies. Even the former warden, John Ault, who came on in 2005 and whose duty it was to decide which R-rated movies could be shown, testified he never watched any. He delegated that job to a four-person committee he created in the spring of 2007. But by that August, it had only proposed guidelines. Two subsequent films that Sink alleged caused a sexually charged, hostile work environment were later deemed inappropriate by at least one committee member – but not before being shown.
The movies were eventually stopped, but they continued for a long while after they were supposed to be stopped, Sink alleges. She also claims inmates became hostile toward her after learning that she wanted them turned off. In an email, she asked officials who had told them. In response, she was chided by Ault, who wrote, “Who here has created a more hostile work environment?” and “You and you alone have put yourself out there.”
Questioned on the witness stand about how Sink had done that, Ault replied with no hint of irony, “By turning off the television.”
Ault began his testimony downplaying the films’ offensiveness. Asked if he considered the nature of Sink’s complaints serious, he replied, “We were more concerned about other things going on at the institution than movies that were being shown.” And he couldn’t recall doing anything to address them.
But after the movie scenes were shown in court – including one in which a man keeps the heads of women he has killed mounted like trophies on his wall – Ault acknowledged they might make a female corrections officer’s job difficult, and that such movies should not have been shown.
Department of Corrections Assistant Director Fred Scaletta declined to comment because the case is ongoing, and the defense has yet to present its side. But there’s a broader question that needs answering about what’s going on inside the prisons and whether the state agency overseeing them is paying adequate attention. If the goal is to turn criminals around, you don’t do that by entertaining them with images that glorify hideous, inhumane offenses against people, some of which they may have even committed or dreamed of.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.