JDI IN THE NEWS - 2003

Lara Stemple, Women in Prison Shouldn't Have to Endure Abuse, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 17, 2003.

There are a lot of words that could be used to describe what happened to Jackie Noyes, a 24-year-old inmate at Taycheedah Correctional Institution: "sad," "unfortunate" or even "troubling."

A lot of words fit when you're talking about a mentally ill woman who was impregnated by a correctional officer and then sentenced to solitary confinement for a year as punishment. You could call what happened "outrageous." You might even say it was "appalling." One word you couldn't use, though, is "surprising."

That's because Wisconsin is one of only four states that has no laws prohibiting sexual contact between prison staff and inmates. And in women's prisons, where sexual coercion and abuse of inmates by officers have been extensively documented, the absence of legal safeguards is a virtual invitation to abuse.

Throughout the country, custodial officials have raped female prisoners, coerced sex from vulnerable inmates and abused their authority by exchanging goods and privileges for sex. Male corrections officers are frequently allowed to watch female inmates when they are dressing, showering or using the toilet, and some regularly engage in verbal degradation of women prisoners.

One of the best studies on these problems -- pioneering research published by Cindy Struckman-Johnson of the University of South Dakota in 2000 -- drew on research done in Midwestern women's prisons. In the worst facilities, as many as one in four female inmates had been sexually abused.

What happened to Noyes, in other words, is no surprise. The only thing unexpected about her situation is that state lawmakers have done so little to prevent this type of sexual abuse from continuing.

Fortunately, a bipartisan coalition of legislators is pushing for a bill that would bring Wisconsin in line with the rest of the nation. The measure, which is backed by more than 50 Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature, would make it a felony for corrections officers to have sexual contact with people under their control.

It also would set stiff penalties -- fines of up to $100,000 or prison terms or both -- for those who break the law.

Stop Prisoner Rape, a national human rights organization that works to prevent sexual violence against men, women and youths behind bars, strongly supports the legislators' effort to criminalize sexual abuse of Wisconsin inmates by correctional staff.

The law that Wisconsin develops should avoid the shortcomings of measures enacted by other states that have failed to go far enough to prevent guard-inmate contact. Wisconsin shouldn't penalize inmates who have sexual contact with guards, a practice that makes it too easy for officers to pressure inmates into silence or to retaliate against those who report abuse.

Furthermore, the law should not allow claims of inmate consent when prosecuting officers. Corrections officials have extraordinary control over inmates -- so much control, in fact, that the idea of an inmate giving "consent" is meaningless. If sex can be shown to have occurred between an officer and an inmate -- especially when there is DNA evidence -- there should be no question that the person who bears responsibility is the officer.

Finally, the law should leave no room for exceptions: All staff and contractors should be included, and no locations should be exempt; inmates have been abused off prison grounds, in transport vans and in local jails.

Why should the law be so strong? Because it will make correctional facilities safer, more humane and more professional.

And those are words that would be a relief to hear when people talk about Wisconsin prisons.

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Lara Stemple is the executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape.