Lovisa Stannow, Freeing prisons of sex violence, The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 29, 2008
This month marks the fifth anniversary of an important advance in our criminal justice system: the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Before its passage, conventional wisdom held that rape was inherent to prison life, something that "bad people" do. Many prison officials insisted that there was nothing that they could do about it. Others wrongly claimed that these abuses were aberrations, a pop culture construct that was not worthy of serious attention.
Today, some of the most outspoken early critics of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, including several top-ranking state corrections administrators, are partners in the effort to implement the law. Working side-by-side with human rights advocates, they are developing training curricula, examining facility policies and establishing national standards addressing sexual abuse in detention.
But while some attitudes and regulations are starting to change, the problem is far from solved. A shocking proportion of the more than 2.3 million people detained in the United States on any given day continue to suffer some form of sexual violence, including rape. According to two recent nationwide inmate surveys, mandated by this law and conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 60,500 prison inmates were sexually abused in a 12-month period and almost 25,000 jail detainees were victimized over a six- month period. Many are abused by corrections staff, others by inmates.
Unfortunately, prisoner rape jokes remain commonplace, on late night television, talk radio and in movies. These wisecracks trivialize the devastating experiences of thousands of individuals. By tacitly suggesting that sexual abuse is somehow ever appropriate, they also serve as major obstacles to ending this type of violence.
The problem of sexual abuse in detention is deeply rooted and will not go away without a fight. However, it is a fight worth taking on. That's what Congress properly recognized five years ago when it voted unanimously in favor of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. And that's why President Bush signed it into law on Sept. 4, 2003.
Prisoner rape is an affront to justice. It shatters the lives of its victims, and it hurts the rest of us as well, by spreading violence and disease far beyond the prison walls.
Rape should never be part of the penalty. With increased awareness, sound policies, and consistent practices, we can prevent sexual violence behind bars.
This Op-Ed was also published in the following publications:
Anchorage Daily News (9/26)
The Modesto Bee (9/25)
The News & Observer (9/25)
The Island Packet (9/25)
The Bellingham Herald (9/25)
The Tri-City Herald (9/25)
The Fresno Bee (9/26)
The Belleville News-Democrat (9/25)
The New York Daily News
The Lake Wylie Pilot
The National Post
Leader (Corning, NY)
Monitor (McAllen, TX)