Lovisa Stannow, For the sake of all Texans, stop rape in our prisons: System’s dismal record affects us all, Houston Chronicle, March 26, 2008.
When the government makes the grave decision to remove someone's liberty, it has the responsibility to protect that person's physical safety. No matter what the crime, rape must never be part of the penalty.
Unfortunately, a shocking number of prisoners do suffer rape and other forms of sexual abuse while incarcerated, at the hands of inmates and of prison staff. In a recent nationwide ranking of the problem of sexual violence in detention, Texas state prisons came last.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice runs five of the 10 prisons with the highest rates of sexual victimization in the country. Today and Friday in Houston, the U.S. Department of Justice Review Panel on Prison Rape is holding public hearings to examine the policies and practices at these five prisons. The hearing provides a unique opportunity for policy-makers, and all Texans, to seek solutions to the systemic problems that have placed the TDCJ so firmly among the nation's most troubled prison systems.
The BJS prison ranking was based on the first-ever nationwide inmate survey, in which prisoners across the country were asked whether they had experienced sexual abuse at their current facility in the past 12 months.
Nationwide, the BJS found that 4.5 percent of prison inmates — that's 60,500 people, more than the population of Galveston — reported being sexually assaulted in the previous year alone. At each of the five TDCJ facilities represented at this week's hearing — the Allred Unit, the Clements Unit, the Coffield Unit, the Estelle Unit and the Mountain View Unit — between 9.3 percent and 15.7 percent of inmates reported that they had been sexually abused in the same period.
While anyone can become the victim of sexual abuse in detention, the most vulnerable inmates tend to be young, small in stature, nonviolent, transgender, gay or perceived to be gay, and inexperienced in the ways of prison life.
Wherever it happens, sexual abuse is devastating, physically and emotionally. For prisoners, the problems are compounded. Unable to get away from the perpetrator and fearful of retaliation, incarcerated survivors of sexual abuse tend to suffer in silence, without access to mental health counseling or even the most basic medical care.
Anyone who thinks rape in detention is of little concern to broader society should think again. Apart from being one of the most egregious violations of human rights in our country today, the sexual abuse of prisoners constitutes a significant public health problem. Once released — and 95 percent of inmates do eventually return home — survivors of sexual violence bring back to their communities long-term psychological problems, learned violent behavior and serious medical conditions, including HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Sexual abuse is not an inevitable part of prison life. It is the result of ineffective policies and poor prison management. The acute problems in TDCJ facilities are a case in point. Of the letters Stop Prisoner Rape receives daily from survivors of sexual abuse in detention nationwide, an alarming one in five comes from a TDCJ inmate. In their letters, prisoners describe classification policies that fail to ensure the safety of weak inmates. Many highlight homophobic and dismissive staff attitudes, which effectively set vulnerable inmates up to be victimized. Many emphasize the failure of TDCJ prison officials to respond effectively in the aftermath of a sexual assault.
The need for genuine reform of the TDCJ is evident, as sexual abuse continues to plague Texas state prisons, derailing justice and shattering the dignity of victims.
For a start, the TDCJ must redouble its efforts to classify inmates appropriately upon entry to prison, and to grant vulnerable inmates swift transfers into the protective housing they need.
The TDCJ must also, as a matter of urgency, shift staff attitudes toward greater appreciation of every human being's inherent right to be free from sexual abuse.
In addition, TDCJ must ensure that all prisoner rape survivors are offered confidential mental health counseling and adequate medical care.
This week's public hearing in Houston has the potential to jump-start such reform, making the TDCJ's purported zero-tolerance toward sexual abuse in its prisons a reality. By taking the opportunity to examine the weaknesses of its system and to improve its policies and practices, the TDCJ can make its prisons — and all of Texas — safer.
Stannow is the executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape, an international human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention.