Lovisa Stannow and Kathy Hall-Martinez, A devastating link: prisoner rape, the war on drugs in the U.S., The Clarion-Ledger, May 16, 2007.

LOS ANGELES — The enormous financial and moral costs of the U.S. "war on drugs" have been well-documented over the past few years. Less known is the devastating link between that crusade and the epidemic of rape behind bars.

With laws requiring longer sentences for drug offenses and less judicial discretion for leniency, the war on drugs has had a profound impact - just not the impact that was intended.

Instead of resolving the problems of drug use and drug addiction, these policies have resulted in a mushrooming of the inmate population, which in turn has contributed to the problem of rampant sexual abuse in prisons and jails.

Of the 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States today, more than 500,000 are incarcerated on drug charges alone, with hundreds of thousands more imprisoned on drug-motivated crimes, such as property offenses and public order violations.

Federal, state, and local governments are spending astronomical sums on building ever more prisons and jails - and existing facilities are still seriously overcrowded and dysfunctional.

Recent research studies show that as many as 20 percent of male prisoners have been pressured or coerced into sex, and 10 percent have been raped.

In a study at one women's facility, more than a quarter of the inmates reported that they had been subjected to sexual abuse.

In fact, prisoner rape is this country's most widespread human rights emergency and the war on drugs is a major contributor to the crisis.

With little or no institutional protection, prisoner rape survivors are left with physical injuries, are impregnated against their will, contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and suffer severe psychological harm.

Any inmate can become the victim of prisoner rape, but people serving drug sentences, many of whom are young, non-violent, and unschooled in the ways of prison life, are among those most vulnerable to sexual abuse.

"Carl Shepard," whose name was changed because he still fears for his safety, is a case in point. A non-violent gay man, Shepard was raped by his cellmate while serving time in a Mississippi prison for larceny that was motivated by his drug addiction.

He tried to report the rape immediately, but was not able to do so until the following day. When he was finally able to speak with prison administrators, they minimized the attack.

Shepard told Stop Prisoner Rape, "The major said that because I am gay, the sex must have been consensual. He said I got what I deserved."

Anyone who thinks prisoner rape and other forms of sexual violence behind bars do not matter to those on the outside should think again. Some 95 percent of inmates are eventually released. When they return to their communities, they bring with them their prison experiences, including learned violent behavior and the long-term effects of trauma.

In the case of prisoner rape survivors, the emotional and physical scars of the abuse they endured while incarcerated can fester for years, even decades, profoundly affecting family, friends, and the wider community.

The war on drugs needs to be reconsidered as a matter of urgency. This need has nothing to do with being soft on crime and everything to do with establishing effective and sensible public policy.

After a decades-long incarceration frenzy, we have succeeded in putting more people behind bars per capita than any other country in the world, without making a dent in the trade and use of illicit drugs.

Meanwhile, we have set up thousands of non-violent men and women for sexual abuse behind bars and life-long emotional trauma.

Rape should never be part of any inmate's punishment. Survivors like Carl Shepard have become the casualties of the war on drugs; they are men and women who have paid far too high a price for such a futile crusade.

Lovisa Stannow and Kathy Hall-Martinez are the co-executive directors of Stop Prisoner Rape, a national human rights organization based in Los Angeles. For more information about the link between the war on drugs and prisoner rape, please visit www.spr.org.