Paul Wright and Andrea Cavanaugh, Vermont should protect prisoners from sexual abuse, The Brattleboro Reformer, March 26, 2005.

Imagine a prisoner forced to have sex with a guard to retain the most basic privileges, such as seeing her children on visiting day. It is inhumane; it is degrading. But in Vermont, it's not illegal.

As Oregon prepares to pass a custodial sexual misconduct bill, Vermont -- usually at the forefront of social change and grassroots activism -- soon will suffer the dubious distinction of being the only state in the nation that has failed to criminalize sex between prisoners and staff.

The problem of sexual abuse in prisons and jails is much more widespread than most people imagine.

In Kentucky, where hundreds of Vermont inmates are held in private prisons because of overcrowding in their home state, a prison guard recently was arrested on suspicion of sexual abuse and official misconduct for allegedly raping inmates.

A Vermont man successfully sued the private prison operator, and a second suit by a Vermont inmate is pending. If the incidents had taken place in Vermont, and been deemed consensual sex, as the guard claimed, his conduct wouldn't have broken any laws.

In the worst facilities, as many as one in four female inmates has been sexually abused, according to research on Midwestern prisons published by Cindy Struckman-Johnson of the University of South Dakota.

Across the country, corrections officers have raped female inmates or used commodities or privileges to coerce vulnerable prisoners into sex. In many facilities, male corrections officers are allowed to watch female prisoners shower, dress and use the toilet.

In cases where inmates have been impregnated by corrections officers, it is sometimes the prisoners, not the guards, who are punished.

Fortunately, Vermont now has a chance to make its prisons and jails safer, more professional, and more humane.

Stop Prisoner Rape, a national human rights organization that seeks to end sexual violence against men, women and youths in all forms of detention, strongly supports the passage of a custodial sexual misconduct bill in Vermont.

Vermont officials have begun the process of drafting custodial sexual misconduct bills three times in the past four years, only to see the legislation strangled by bureaucracy.

Enacting strong legislation now will avoid the pitfalls found in states where the law doesn't go far enough. For example, the law shouldn't allow prison staff to claim that inmates consented to sex. Corrections officials exercise so much control over inmates that the idea of "consent" has little meaning.

The legislation shouldn't punish inmates for having sex -- a provision that allows corrections staff to stifle inmates into silence or retaliate against inmates who report abuse.

The bill should cover any staff member who comes into contact with inmates, and include all locations. Stop Prisoner Rape works with inmates who have been abused in transport vans or off prison grounds.

Prisoners subjected to sexual abuse often lack adequate medical care and suffer from unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and psychological trauma.

And for those who believe prison sexual abuse affects only those inside institutional walls, consider this -- 95 percent of prisoners eventually will be released, and will return to our communities suffering from the devastating physical and emotional effects of sexual abuse.

Regardless of the crimes they have committed, prisoners deserve to live in safety and dignity.

The right to be free from sexual abuse is an inalienable human right, regardless of a person's status in society.

Vermont should now take a stand on this vital human rights issue and enact a custodial sexual misconduct bill.

Brattleboro resident Paul Wright is a member of Stop Prisoner Rape's Board of Advisors. Andrea Cavanaugh is the organization's public outreach associate.