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