David Whitsell, Prisoner Rape is Unjust: An Interview with a Sexual Assault Expert, Associated Content, June 25, 2009

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Linda McFarlane. She is the Deputy Executive Director of Just Detention International. Just Detention is a human rights organization that seeks to end sexual abuse in all forms of detention. Its website is: http://www.justdetention.org/.

Prisoner rape is a sensitive issue that many feel uncomfortable discussing. As such it receives little attention even though, in the U.S.A., it is a big problem. I would like to thank Linda for this interview, and you the reader for learning about an uncomfortable subject.

What drew you to Just Detention International?

I have worked with sexual assault survivors for two decades. The work to end sexual assault in detention represents an opportunity to help some of the most marginalized survivors of sexual assault.

I heard that one in five people who are incarcerated are sexually assaulted. That number seems very high. Where does it come from?

Cindy and David Struckman-Johnson conducted a study on seven Midwestern men's prisons. According to the findings of that survey, 21% of the inmates had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since being incarcerated in their state. The number for women is slightly higher.

That is a big problem. Have things gotten better or worse since that study was done?

In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed by Congress. This legislation is federal but it takes aim at all places of incarceration. A "National Prison Rape Elimination Commission" was created to oversee implementation of the legislation, which you can view at www.nprec.us. Since then things have gotten better overall, though huge disparities exist between facilities, but those concerned with the issue are constantly striving to make the situation better nationwide. A new set of standards for addressing sexual assault in detention, as mandated by PREA, were released on June 23, 2009.

Is prison rape this big of a problem everywhere?

Rape of inmates by staff or other inmates happens around the world, but some countries are better than others. Canada is reported to have far less of a problem than the USA, but it should be noted that its prison population is much smaller. Prisoner rape, like all forms of rape, thrives where violence is allowed against certain groups of people. However, one rape in custody is one too many. Prisoner rape creates more violence and it goes against everything we stand for as a country; no matter what crime someone has committed, rape must not be part of the penalty. The good news is it is preventable. Prisoner rape is a management issue and we are making progress.

Suppose someone was recently convicted of a felony and was about to be incarcerated. What could he or she do to prevent being a sexual assault victim?

First, the onus of stopping sexual assault should not be placed on the potential victim but on the perpetrator. With that stated there are things that a person can do to decrease his or her risk of being of sexually assaulted. One of the most important things is to stay out of debt. Prison debt is a factor in many of the incidences of rape, as well as much of the other violence that occurs in places of incarceration. I would make sure that my family kept money in my account, if they had the resources. Also, I would try to find both other inmates and staff members who seem trustworthy with whom to build connections. It should be noted that, according to former inmates that we have talked to, not all offers of help are predatory in nature. We have been told that the difference between the two is in the nature of the offers. The offers that are more secretive are usually the type of offers that predators use to groom their victims.

Thanks again Linda for the interview and for your commitment to eliminating, or at least reducing, sexual assault behind bars.

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