Wendy Kaufman, Profile: Federal Efforts to Define and End Prison Rape, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, October 29, 2003.


Rape is 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 Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN reporting:

The law 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.

Ms. LARA 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.'

KAUFMAN: Shortly thereafter, Hulin hung himself in his cell.

Supporters 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.

Mr. 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.

KAUFMAN: 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.

Mr. MARTIN 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.

KAUFMAN: A 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 a cell.

Lieutenant SUNNY BRUNO: We're going up to where they call 5 North, where the classification interview offices are.

KAUFMAN: 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.

Sheriff 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.

KAUFMAN: 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.

Some of 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.