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