Not Part of the Penalty, Pacifica Radio, KPFK 90.7 FM (Los Angeles, CA), December 17, 2007.

Listen to the Audio: Not Part of the Penalty

I am Edward Cervantes, the Survivor Outreach Associate of Stop Prisoner Rape. In my job, I speak every day with men, women, and youth who have been subjected to shocking sexual violence in detention.

As you may know, yesterday the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a unique report that confirmed what we at Stop Prisoner Rape have known for years – that sexual abuse in detention is pervasive. According to yesterday’s report, more than sixty thousand inmates held at state and federal prisons were subjected to sexual abuse in the past year alone.

This National Inmate Survey is the first of its kind and covered more than half of the 2.4 million people currently incarcerated in the United States. The research method – asking prisoners directly and anonymously whether they had been subjected to sexual abuse in the past 12 months – sets it apart from all previous attempts by the federal government to study the problem. Previous studies have relied entirely on data submitted by corrections officials.

Stop Prisoner Rape knows from speaking daily with prisoner rape survivors that the vast majority will never file a formal complaint, for fear of retaliation, stigma, or further abuse. It is not at all surprising, then, that yesterday’s report established a rate of sexual abuse that is 15 times higher than the analysis of formal inmate complaints that was published by the same government agency as recently as four months ago.

Garrett Cunningham, a prisoner rape survivor from Texas is a case in point.  He says, “After being raped by a prison guard, I was devastated and terrified. I felt sure that filing a formal complaint with the perpetrator’s colleagues would only have made my situation worse.” 

It is no mystery who the vulnerable inmates are. They tend to be young, non-violent, unschooled in the ways of prison life, small in stature, or mentally ill. Gay and transgender detainees, or those who are perceived to be gay, are especially likely to suffer abuse.

We also know that prisoner rape is almost entirely preventable. In fact, vulnerable inmates could be protected without much difficulty.

Basic measures, such as identifying likely victims and likely perpetrators – and making sure that they don’t get placed in the same cell – would ensure that thousands of men, women, and youth are spared the devastation of a sexual assault.

In yesterday’s report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics identified the prisons with the highest and the lowest rates of sexual abuse. Alarmingly, five of the ten worst facilities are prisons run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. This finding confirms Stop Prisoner Rape’s own data; of the nearly 900 survivors who have written to us in the past few years, 20 percent are incarcerated in Texas state prisons.

A male inmate currently held at a prison in Texas, describes his ordeal:

When I was first assaulted I tried to report it but was laughed at by the staff and told to ‘fight or choose a man.’ When I asked for safekeeping I was turned down for unknown reasons. Because I could get no help from the staff or the warden I went back and accepted whatever assault was going to happen. Out of fear and wanting to live, I did whatever I was told to do. Because I didn’t know what to do, I submitted.

Stop Prisoner Rape urges corrections officials across the country to consider yesterday’s report a wake-up call. When the government makes the grave decision to remove a person’s liberty, it takes on the responsibility to guarantee his or her physical safety.  Whether perpetrated by staff or by inmates, sexual abuse in detention is a problem of bad prison policies and practices. Rape is not an inevitable fact of life behind bars.