Prison rape: Crime against criminals, Alive (Columbus, OH), December 25, 2003.

In its 20-year existence, Los Angeles-based prisoner-rights group Stop Prison Rape has never once heard from a whistleblower from the staff of a prison. Not until last year, when a former employee at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville came forward to document the abuses he said he witnessed there. Remarkably, two more staff members followed.

Stop Prison Rape, which usually deals with support and advocacy for male and female victims of inmate-on-inmate abuse, seized on the opportunity to create a 15-page report on the Marysville prison. Generally, SPR hears from victims and has to pretty much take them at their word, having a hard time knowing exactly what's going on within an institution and an even harder time persuading the outside world of the problem's urgency.

"There's a big problem with inmates not being seen as credible," SPR Executive Director Lara Stemple said. "So a lot of times we tend to believe the inmates that come to us with reports of abuse because we hear the patterns and we know when it has the ring of truth."

With three former staff members and victims coming forward (plus independent media investigations and reports of abuses there), SPR was able to assemble a pretty strong report about the Ohio Reformatory for Women (available online at spr.org).

"We didn't put anything in our report unless we heard it from more than one person," Stemple said. "There were things that we heard about that were more extreme that didn't make it into to our report because we weren't able to hear it from more than one person."

The stories are pretty harrowing, but as terrible as the individual rape experiences may be, even more alarming may be the official reaction as the report recounts it.

SPR said it was policy at the prison to punish any woman who alleged sexual assault by stripping her of all privileges and forcing her into solitary confinement, which would obviously discourage others from reporting abuse. The report also says that "sex between inmates and staff was the subject of almost daily discussion," and that "staff members kept a mattress in a boiler room for the purpose of sexual misconduct."

Senator Mark Mallory and Senator Bob Hagan, members of the state Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, immediately called for investigations. The CIIC, a legislative watchdog on the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, was de-funded two years ago, so it didn't have a staff to follow-up on reports. Funding was recently restored, allowing for three staff positions, two of which are currently filled. The Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections is expected to make a presentation to the CIIC next month.

So if Ohio's was the first prison system to produce a whistleblower for SPR, is it also the worst in terms of abuse of female prisoners?

"I can't say for sure because we did not do formal research in that regard," Stemple said. "But given everything that I've heard, [Ohio] certainly stands out as being a very problematic situation compared to other states and I think it is a cause for concern."

As is prison rape across the country, which the federal government, from President George W. Bush on down, has acknowledged by passing the Prison Rape Elimination Act this fall.

(Ironically, the U.S. may face difficulties because our anti-discrimination laws are at odds with human rights conventions. Cross-gender guarding so greatly increases the possibility of sexual abuse that it's prohibited by international human rights conventions; but in the U.S., anti-discrimination laws prevent prison officials from hiring only female staffers at women's prisons.)

Stemple called the federal act "an important first step" in addressing the problem of prison rape, noting it received support from across the political spectrum-Concerned Women For America, Focus on the Family, the NAACP and Human Rights Watch all threw their support behind it.

"The sad situation is, almost from time immemorial nothing has been done about prison rape," Stemple said. "So we're really at the cusp of an important social movement in that society is coming together to agree that this is a situation whose time has come to address."

If that's the case, it's too bad Ohio's role has to be that of bad example. But more important than what the report revealed about the state's history with prisoner abuse will be how the lawmakers and prison officials react to it in the future.