Max Williams and Lovisa Stannow, Rape is Not Part of the Penalty, The Oregonian,
June 21, 2009
When the government removes someone’ s liberty, it takes on an absolute responsibility to keep that person safe,
including from sexual abuse. This is a difficult task and, unfortunately, in prisons nationwide the failure of
government agencies to uphold that responsibility is all too common.
Oregon is no exception. Sexual violence does occur in our prisons. What sets Oregon apart, however, is the
Department of Corrections’ effort over the last five years to end this type of abuse. The most recent initiative
was launched through a unique collaboration between Oregon corrections officials and national human rights advocates.
On Tuesday, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission is due to release the first–ever binding national standards
aimed at preventing and addressing sexual abuse in U.S. prisons and jails. Mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003,
and developed with input from corrections officials, prisoner rape survivors, and advocates, these standards have the potential
to become the most important tool so far in the effort to end sexual abuse in detention.
The national standards spell out requirements for prison housing decisions, staff training, inmate education, and sexual assault
investigations. The U.S. attorney general has one year to issue a rule codifying them. Governors will then have another year to
confirm that their states are in compliance with the standards. Those who fail to do so risk losing 5 percent of their corrections-related
federal funding. That is not, however, why the Oregon DOC has made the bold decision to seek compliance with the standards even before
it is required to do so.
The reason for that decision is simple: Sexual abuse in detention is wrong. It is an affront to our society's basic values. It causes
terrible harm to survivors and creates unsafe prisons for staff and inmates alike.
In order to become an “early adopter” of the standards, the Department of Corrections has entered into a partnership with
Just Detention International, an organization whose mission is to end sexual abuse in detention. Starting in 2008, DOC officials
and JDI staff have worked to identify strengths and weaknesses in DOC policies, as well as in day-to-day practices at three
prisons –– Oregon State Correctional Institution, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility and Snake River Correctional Institution.
JDI experts have trained prison staff in sexual violence awareness, interviewed inmates and identified areas where the DOC is
out of compliance with the standards. Working together, we have made concrete improvements, adding training modules, creating
inmate hotlines, and improving the information that prisoners receive upon arrival in prison.
The problem of sexual abuse in detention is deeply rooted and will not go away without a fight. There undoubtedly will be setbacks,
but it is a battle that we can win. That is what Congress acknowledged in 2003 when it passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. That is
what today's national standards make clear, and that is what the DOC and JDI have recognized by working together.
Now, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder must send an important signal about the urgency with which we need to address prisoner rape.
He can do so by ensuring that the standards provide the tools and protections Congress intended.
Whatever crime someone has committed, rape must not be part of the penalty.
Max Williams is director of the Oregon Department of Corrections. Lovisa Stannow is executive director of Just Detention International.