JDI IN THE NEWS - 2003

Prison Rape Gets Attention, The Ledger, July 28, 2003.

A U.S. congressman from Virginia took note of recent news accounts about a University of Florida student who was allegedly raped while spending the weekend in the Alachua County Jail in Gainesville on a minor drug charge.

"This young man will be scarred for life," said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. "Here he is processed into jail on a Friday afternoon and is raped a few hours later by his cell mate. It's tragic. I have heard too many similar stories unfolding across the country of both men and women being raped in prison. Something needs to be done."

At this writing, the U.S. House was poised to approve bipartisan legislation, co-sponsored by Wolf, that would begin to do something about an issue that is too often ignored by corrections officials, politicians and the public alike -- prison and jail rape.

No one is ever formally sentenced to rape in America's criminal justice system. But the reality is that thousands of jail and prison inmates are sexually assaulted every year. By one estimate, as many as 200,000 of the 2 million Americans behind bars have been raped.

"Being violently assaulted in prison is not part of the penalty criminals should pay for breaking the law," Wolf says. "Men and women who are sentenced to prison should serve their time, but being raped by a fellow prisoner or guards is not part of the punishment."

Alachua County jail officials were quick to explain the alleged rape of the university student as the result of overcrowded conditions. That is neither an adequate excuse, nor a convincing explanation. Corrections officials should be called to account when such an incident occurs. And that's part of the problem -- the lack of accountability.

Last week, the Justice Policy Institute's president, Vincent Schiraldi, was quoted by the Capitol newspaper The Hill as saying that prison rape is "a weird serious problem that society has come to joke about. Part of the reason is that rage at criminals exploded during the 1990s. But good-thinking liberals and conservatives feel that you go to prison as punishment, not for punishment."

Wolf's legislation would create a national commission to examine the issue of prison rape and recommend national standards for reducing or eliminating rapes. It would direct the Justice Department to do annual surveys to determine just how prevalent is the crime of rape in federal, state and county correctional facilities.

And it would establish a system of federal grants for the prevention of prison rape. In addition, it would require correctional-accreditation groups to take rape prevention plans into consideration when evaluating facilities.

"This legislation is not just about treating prisoners humanely," Wolf argues. "Society also pays dearly for ignoring prison rape."

He cites studies that show that rape contributes to recidivism rates and helps turn first-time offenders into hardened criminals. Prison rape is also very much a public-health problem. It increases the risk of spreading HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases and infections such as hepatitis among inmate populations.

Prison rape also puts correctional institutions at risk of being sued or otherwise held liable. Although several human rights organizations support the measure, they point out that one of its weakness is that it does not broaden an inmate's right to legal recourse after being raped.

That alone might prompt jail and prison officials to become more diligent about preventing prison rapes and cracking down on sexual predators behind bars.

But the bill is a necessary start toward addressing a serious issue that for too long has been ignored. Monday, the U.S. Senate passed the same bill, which was drawn up by political opposites Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. With the House following suit, President Bush should waste no time signing it into law.

Lara Stemple of the group Stop Prisoner Rape said last week that "the rape of inmates is the No. 1 human rights problem in our prison system."

Since the states haven't acted over the years, it's appropriate that Congress confront that problem.