Charlie Frago, Law focuses state on prison sex assaults, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 9, 2005.
The Board of Corrections will vote today on the state's plan to comply with a new federal law prodding Arkansas and states around the country to craft policies to combat sexual assaults in prisons, jails and other detention centers.
Despite delays in implementing the 2003 law and the slight penalties for noncompliance, Arkansas stands to lose about $40,000 in federal grants if it doesn't comply: advocates for prisoners welcome the law as an important first step in addressing the problem.
The older teen recently pleaded guilty to a second-degree murder charge in the July 24 beating of a homeless man in West Oakland. He's scheduled to be sentenced in that case Friday.
"The problem is that it's been laughed about for a long time," said Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group. Stemple said numerous television commercials, movies and comedy shows have made light of the sexual assault of inmates, but "it's not a joke."
About 2.1 million people are being held in prisons and jails nationwide, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Because 95 percent of all inmates are expected to be released some day, sexual assault behind bars affects more than just inmates, say advocates and prison officials.
"The risks associated with sexual assault in prison...extend beyond prison walls," Stemple said before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2002. "Upon release, rape survivors may bring with them emotional scars, sexually transmitted infections and learned violent behavior that continue the cycle of harm."
The Prison Rape Elimination Act mandates that states carefully track all sexual assaults in their detention facilities and report them to the federal government. The law also calls for a federal commission to create national standards aimed at lowering the number of sexual assaults behind bars and form a review panel to determine the best and worst performing facilities in the country.
But some experts who have studied the law are unimpressed. Two law school professors from Stanford University in California, Robert Weisberg and David Mills, called the law "quixotic" in a 2003 Slate article. They remain skeptical.
"I thought then, and think now, that it is a strange irony that this Act was called the Prison Rape Elimination Act when its main point was to study the problem with unknown methodologies," Mills wrote this week in an e-mail to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
In a separate e-mail, Weisberg wrote that no data will be available until 2006, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics itself has expressed doubt about "getting meaningful data."
"A cut in federal financial help...could spur prisons to action," Weisberg said, "but I think it's far too soon to tell if threats of such cuts will be made, much less taken seriously."
According to figures from the state Department of Correction, a relatively small number of sexual assaults occur each year in its prisons, which house more than 13,000 inmates.
Over the past five years, for example, Arkansas prison officials have turned over 34 sexual assault cases to the Arkansas State Police for investigation. That's an average of less than seven per year.
Of those, only three have been prosecuted, ine in Newport and two in Pine Bluff, said Dina Tyler, spokesman for the department.
Those numbers diverge sharply from national estimates. According to the text of the new law, experts estimate that at least 13 percent of inmates in the United States have been sexually assaulted in prison. That translates into nearly 200,000 inmates currently behind bars. Over the past 20 years, the number of inmates sexually assaulted in prison has likely exceeded 1 million.
Tyler said the state's low sexual assault numbers reflect the difficulty in gathering enough physical evidence and credible witnesses to turn over cases to local prosecutors. Tyler also said it is difficult to determine whether an inmate has been sexually assaulted or has engaged in consensual sex.
"A lot of these inmates fall into the age-old trap of 'I bought you four Honey Buns, now pay up,'"she said.
One problem has been that inmates often wait for weeks before they report a sexual assault. To make it easier for inmates to speak out, a hot line was activated in each of the Correction Department's units in April.
After a month, 66 calls were logged. Investigatos are still processing some of them, but so far no allegation has been substantiated, she said.
Department officials say that the state has made progress in putting policies in place that will satisfy the federal government.
Aside from the hot line, officials started systemwide training in January. Workshops for employees on how to recognize and report sexual assaults have been held. A committee has been appointed to coordinate and track how well sexual assaults are reported, to track "predators" and to keep victims safe.
Department Director Larry Norris also has instructed his wardens to find any "blind spots" in their prison that might afford enough privacy for a sexual assault to occur.
Federal officials say the state has done some good things.
"I think Arkansas is really goinf at this very appropriately," said Andie Moss, president of the Moss Group, a Washington, D.C.-area private contractor that has been awarded part of a federal $4.7 million appropriation to help train state prison officials. "They are really implementing a systemic plan. That's the most effective way to approach it."
BIG OLD FAMILY
Norris said at a recent conference in Hot Springs that he'd "like to think our institutions are safe."
"ADC is just a big old family. Even convicts are part of the family," Norris said at the conference, which brought together state and federal officials to discuss the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
"Any rape is just too much. It's just not acceptable to us," he said. "But no one is going to be 100 percent."
Kendell Spruce didn't feel like a part of the Correction Department's family. The Arkadelphia native went to prison for the first time in the early 1990s on a forgery conviction. He was 28. Within days, he said, he was sexually assaulted. By the time he left the Cummins Unit in early 1992, he said, 27 different men had sexually assaulted him hundreds of times. He said inmates paid guards in cigarettes, candy and soda to "turn a deaf ear" to his cries for help.
"It was regular, hourly. Oh Lord, I was dead. I was tossed aside, and here comes another one," said Spruce, now 42 and living outside Flint, Mich.
"I saw guys getting stabbed, beat up, killed. I didn't want that to happen to me," said Spruce, who claims he contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from his attackers.
Spruce, who said his HIV has responded to treatment and he feels healthy, has filed seven federal civil lawsuits against the Correction Department claiming prison officials failed to prevent his sexual abuse. All the suits, filed between 1991 and 1997, were dismissed.
"They didn't want to hear it," Spruce said. "They said it was because I was gay. It doesn't matter. Rape is rape."
Tyler said Spruce's claims were not substantiated in court. But in 1998, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis noted in an opinion that the Cummins warden at the time, Willis Sargent, testified in District Court that "inmates in prison had to 'fight' against sexual aggressors; i.e. it is the inmate's own responsibility to 'let people understand that [they're] not going to put up with that.'"
The Prison Rape Elimination Act was passed by unanimous consent in both the U.S. House and Senate in July 2003. President Bush signed it into law that September, but delays in appointing the nine-member commission have slowed progress across the country. President Bush appointed three members, and the other six members were appointed by the Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The commission's first official meeting is scheduled for June 14 in Washington with the goal of having all 50 states in compliance within two years.
Federal dollars are at stake. The law states that Department of Justice grants will be reduced by 5 percent a year if states don't meet the national standards developed by the commission. The state Correction Department, with an annual budget of about $231 million, gets about $840,000 a year in federal funds, so it stands to love $42,000.
Another penalty will be that the two lowest-performing states will have to send representatives to Washington to answer commissioners' questions about what they are doing wrong.
The law also covers county jails and juvenile detention centers. In Pulaski County, sheriff's office spokesman John Rehrauer said the county is rewriting some policies to conform with the law but it already complies with most of the requirements.
"A lot of it is already being done," he said.
Rehrauer didn't have statistics on the number of sexual assaults in the jail over the past several years.
Studies have shown that HIV, hepatitis C and other communicable diseases are as much as three to 10 times higher among inmates, and sexual assault is responsible for a large percentage of those cases, Stemple and others said.
Tyler said 100 inmates out of about 13,500 in Arkansas prisons are HIV-positive, and 24 of them have AIDS. The prison system has about 604 inmates with hepatitis C, which also is transmitted sexually.
In Arkansas, inmates are offered HIV and STD testing when they arrive and leave prison, but it is voluntary, making it impossible to track how many inmates contracted sexually transmitted diseases while in prison, said Dr. Nate Smith of the state Department of Health.