Kristen Green, Commission finds that prison rapes affect families, communities, Scripps-Howard News Service, June 17, 2005.
WASHINGTON - You would never guess from her smartly fitted suit and meticulous blonde updo that Marilyn Shirley's life was anything but perfection.
But Shirley, 49, was raped in a federal prison in Texas in 2002 while serving time on drug charges. Awaked at 3 a.m. by a guard who said she was wanted in the officers' station, she was taken to a supply room and molested by one officer while another acted as his lookout.
The attack has left her on five medications, experiencing frequent panic attacks and nightmares. She said she cannot be intimate with her husband because she is afraid he may take advantage of her.
Although the culprit was sentenced to 12½ years in prison, Shirley still lives in fear, knowing he'll someday be released.
"I'm not free," she said, blinking back tears. "I'm not out of prison - and I've been out for five years."
Shirley was one of five former prisoners who told their stories Tuesday at a hearing held by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to discuss the costs to victims of prison rape. The commission was created in 2003 by the Prison Rape Elimination Act to analyze the incidence and effects of rape in U.S. prisons.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States imprisoned more than 2.1 million people in 2004 in federal, state and local prisons, 47 percent of whom committed violent crimes. As of mid-2004, that included 103,310 women and 1,390,906 men, in state and federal prisons. No breakdown was available for local jails.
A 2000 study of four Midwestern states by professors at the University of South Dakota-Vermillion found that approximately 20 percent of male inmates reported a pressured or forced sex incident. About 10 percent of male inmates reported they had been raped.
For women, the study found 27 percent of women in one facility reported a pressured or forced sex incident, and in another, 7 percent of women reported sexual abuse.
Lara Stemple, executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, a California non-profit human rights group, said men who face the greatest risk are generally smaller, non-violent, first-time offenders and not street smart or gang members. Gay inmates also are prime targets for sexual predators, she said.
Men are more likely to be sexually abused by other inmates, and women are more likely to be molested by male staff members, Stemple said.
Glenn Fine, inspector general of the Department of Justice, said that under current federal law, sexual abuse of inmates is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence one year; however, in cases of rape of an inmate, the charge is a felony that can warrant more jail time.
Fine said there is no such thing as consensual sex between prisoners and guards because prisoners have no power and cannot get power through sex.
Stemple said prisoners rarely report rapes because they are often the ones who are punished. The victims may be placed in solitary confinement or moved to a different prison to protect them.
Reggie B. Walton, the commission chairman and a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, said in an interview that the commission hopes to submit a report to President Bush and Congress after the completion of a study by the Justice Department near November 2006. In the meantime, the commission will hold additional hearings, gather more data and draft a report, Walton said.
He said that budget cutbacks enable prison rapes through overcrowding and problems with inmate classification, which determines the level of threat a prisoner may pose to others.
Safety problems also can arise when blind spots hamper supervision. Older prisons cannot afford to remodel, and staff shortages make some areas difficult to monitor, Walton said.
"Infection rates for HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and hepatitis are far greater for prisoners than for the population as a whole," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., at the hearing. "Prison rape undermines the public health by contributing to the spread of these diseases, and often becomes a death sentence for its victims because of AIDS."
With HIV rates three times higher in prisons than in the outside world, better protection against sexual attacks might prevent more cases like that of Keith DeBlasio.
DeBlasio, 37, was held in two federal prisons from September 1994 to February 2001 for trafficking cashiers checks. He contracted the virus after being sexually assaulted by a fellow inmate and is now forced to live on disability income because of medication costs of $1,800 a month.
"Rape and assault is not a prison sentence," he said. "A judge did not send me to prison to be HIV positive."
Better protection might have saved the life of Amarillo, Texas, resident Linda Bruntmyer's son. Rodney Hulin hanged himself in his prison cell after being repeatedly raped and made to perform sexual acts on other prisoners. He was sentenced to serve eight years in an adult prison for setting a dumpster on fire. He was 17 years old.
"As a parent, you try to prevent your kid from falling," Bruntmyer said. "You try to prevent it from happening, but you can't."