SAMIRA JAFARI: Prison system takes steps to crack down on inmate sexual violence The Associated Press. March 31, 2006

Soon, Alabama's drab prison walls will be speckled with a series of bold posters intended to crush the taboo of inmate rape. Prisoners will be handed pamphlets that tell them they don't have to put up with sexual abuse. Corrections officers will undergo mandatory training on how to help victims behind bars.

A prisoner "has the right to do his time and feel safe," said Randy Yarbrough, director of investigations and intelligence for the Alabama Department of Corrections. "If he has nothing else he has that."

The changes behind Alabama's barbed wire are part of a movement nationwide to combat sexual violence in prisons once treated as a minor, if not invisible problem. States are required to draft prevention, education and monitoring plans under the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Prison officials say Alabama gets only a handful of reports each year, and most of them are ruled as consensual sex or false reports.

Yarbrough, former police chief of Tallassee, said he expected to receive more reports of sexual abuse when he took the post three years ago but that hasn't been the case.

"I think there are probably some cases that don't get reported," he said. "I don't think it's as underreported as people may have thought in the past."

He said Alabama's corrections officers have little tolerance for sexual activity among inmates, even if it's consensual. While consensual sex isn't against state law, it's against DOC policy.

"In Alabama, that's just our culture. We just don't like it," he said. "Other states may be more lenient with a wink and a nod, but here that doesn't happen."

Yarbrough said what DOC lacks is sensitivity toward prison victims, and the system would benefit if their intolerance toward sexual activity was tempered with some understanding about the causes of sexual abuse and the long-term impact.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2003, encourages prison systems to participate in additional training so inmates aren't afraid to come forward with reports of abuse.

It also calls for gathering national statistics about inmate sexual violence; the development of guidelines for states about how to address it; the creation of a review panel to hold discussions with states; divvying state grants to combat the problem.

Alabama corrections officials say they're off to a strong start with more than 97 percent of the corrections employees trained on the causes of inmate sexual abuse and how to better deal with it, and a $1 million grant application submitted to the Department of Justice for more surveillance and awareness programs to target sexual violence.

"The training could tell them to be more sensitive when dealing with inmate victims," Yarbrough said. "The biggest thing would be getting the message to them that it's not consensual, if this is a payback for something. Most of the time, that's exactly what happens."

Extortion and domination are the common cause of inmate rape, experts say. Prisoners, especially those who are young or new to hard time, often seek other inmates who are more experienced for protection and access to money, drugs, food and other luxuries.

In prisons, there's "a situation of deprivation, someone controlling access to everything," said Brenda V. Smith, a law professor at American University Washington College who also sits on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission.

"It can be around power, domination, to exert control over people, to get what people have," she said. "People are going to devise economies and devise ways of getting things ... and sexual domination is a way of getting something," she said.

Smith said that while prison sexual violence may be a result of inmate deals gone bad, inmates shouldn't be faulted.

"Even when you have inmate-on-inmate abuse, that is a correctional system failing," she said. "The reality is that when you have people in a correctional setting, it is the obligation of that setting to protect people from harm."

The scope of sexual abuse varies depending on the source of information. While some studies by activists show that one in five male inmates report some sort of forced sex incident, another by the Department of Justice discounts the prevalence to about eight in 1,000.

The act seeking to reduce the problem acknowledged the lack of conclusive data and called for updated statistics. "Insufficient research has been conducted and insufficient data reported on the extent of prison rape," it stated.

According to background information in PREA, at least 13 percent of the inmates in the United States have been sexually assaulted in prison and "many inmates have suffered repeated assaults."

Under that estimate, nearly 200,000 inmates now incarcerated have been or will be the victims of prison rape and the total number of inmates who have been sexually assaulted in the past 20 years likely exceeds one million.

In Alabama, nine male-on-male sexual assaults were reported in 2005, according to the Corrections Department, with eight of them ruled consensual or false. There were no reports of sexual assault against female prisoners in 2005.

"My reaction is that in reality the number is much higher," Kathy Hall-Martinez, co-executive director of Stop Prison Rape, a Los Angeles-based human rights group. "It's too low to be plausible."

However, Hall-Martinez acknowledged that, just as in the real world, sexual assault tends to go underreported in prisons, as well.

"There's really no upside for a prisoner to report this happening to him or her," she said.

In fact, Alabama prisoners who make sexual allegations are put in solitary confinement. While officials say it's for the inmate's safety, the victim loses privileges, such as exercise time and eating with others, for at least a temporary period just like the sex offender.

Yarbrough said DOC tries to separate violent inmates from weaker or younger ones during the classification process upon entry into prisons but it's not a perfect system. After all, there's only so much space within the overcrowded system, which forces many inmates to sleep within two feet of another and share bathrooms with dozens of others.

The best way to prevent sexual abuse is by making inmates aware of their surroundings, he said.

"They're stuck there, they can't go to another town, they can't walk out," Yarbrough said. "They're stuck with the person causing the problems. The people in prison are convicted felons so you know they're inclined to do things like this."

He hopes that the posters and other material for the prisoners increases their awareness about the causes of sexual violence and makes them feel comfortable with reporting incidents of sexual violence. He said the inmates will also get more information about the counseling available for victims of abuse.

"You make them aware of what their options are," Yarbrough said. "When something does happen, you can come to us and tell us what happened. Don't be afraid. You come tell us and we're going to do something about it we're going to get you safe right then."

On the Net:

Prison Rape Elimination Act at http://www.nicic.org/WebGateway 54.htm