Wendy Kaufman, Profile: Federal Efforts to Define and End Prison Rape, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, October 29, 2003.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
often described as a fact of prison life. But no one knows exactly how
widespread the problem really is. The Prison Rape Elimination Act is the
federal government's attempt to define and end the problem. NPR's Wendy
was pushed by an odd coalition of social conservatives, evangelical
Christians, civil libertarians and human rights groups. Their efforts were
galvanized by the particularly brutal case of 17-year-old Rodney Hulin.
The slightly built young man was repeatedly sexually assaulted in a Texas
prison. Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, says Hulin
filed complaints with prison officials, but they did nothing.
STEMPLE (Stop Prisoner Rape): A quote from one of his grievances--he
wrote, "I'm afraid to go to sleep, to shower and just about everything
else. I'm afraid that when I'm doing these things that I may die at any
minute." But officials did nothing. His mother called the warden and tried
to intervene on his behalf, and the warden told her, `He's just a little
boy. He needs to learn how to grow up and deal with this.'
Shortly thereafter, Hulin hung himself in his cell.
of the federal law acknowledge that this case is extreme. Still, they cite
a 2001 report by Human Rights Watch that concluded that at least 20
percent of all inmates are sexually assaulted in some way. But prison
officials say that figure is highly exaggerated. Reginald Wilkinson, head
of the Ohio Department of Corrections, is president of the Association of
State Correctional Administrators.
REGINALD WILKINSON (Association of State Correctional
Administrators): We know, I know that it is nowhere near what the
legislation characterized it to be. We're not naive enough to say that it
doesn't exist from time to time. Typically when it does exist, it's a
consensual sex act and typically one that's gone bad.
It's hardly surprising there are vastly different perceptions about the
extent of the problem. Prison rape is thought to be underreported by
inmates. Prison officials don't always consider certain conduct to be a
sexual assault. Or, as in the Hulin case, they may choose to ignore it
altogether. So the federal law's first task is to assemble solid data on
just how often sexual assaults occur behind bars. Martin Horn is New York
City's commissioner of corrections.
HORN (Corrections Commissioner): Any solution that is proposed is doomed
to failure if you don't know the true dimensions of the problem, if you
don't--and there's no way to measure your success.
panel of experts will be assembled to develop national guidelines to
prevent sexual assaults. They're likely to consider some of the anti-rape
measures already being used in places like the San Francisco County Jail.
At the top of the list, deciding which inmates should be allowed to share
SUNNY BRUNO: We're going up to where they call 5 North, where the
classification interview offices are.
The classification offices, says Lieutenant Sunny Bruno(ph), are where
inmates are interviewed and then assigned to cells in an effort to keep
potential predators away from those who might be most vulnerable. As part
of the process, San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessy has his staff consider
the nature of an inmate's crime, where and when he may have been
incarcerated before and how he behaved. If it's the inmate's first time in
jail, staff considers physical stature, disabilities, even temperament.
MIKE HENNESSY (San Francisco): As the classification officer interviews
someone, they may get a sense of whether the person is very fearful or
physically unable to fend for himself, and so there's a combination of
factors in a classification system that would cause you to house someone
not by their crime, but by their vulnerability.
San Francisco also conducts extra training for guards, and where possible
they have replaced long linear cell blocks with podlike designs that allow
guards to see almost everything that's going on.
the changes have less to do with architecture than with the attitude of
prison officials. In some cases, the same officials who don't think
there's a problem with prisoner rape will be the ones charged with
implementing solutions. Still, prisoners rights advocates hope the mere
fact that the federal government is now involved will go a long way toward
reducing the problem of prison rape. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.