Lovisa Stannow, Op-ed: Ending Sexual Assault Behind Bars, NYblade.com, June 26, 2009

Robin White entered a corrections facility with a sense of doom. Incarcerated for the first time, for a non-violent offense, prison life seemed overwhelming and dangerous. Threats of sexual violence by other inmates began almost immediately. Soon, Robin was raped.

Too afraid of retaliation to file a formal report of the assault, Robin instead made a request for a transfer. The prison administration did nothing. So Robin was raped again. This time staff identified one of the assailants, but Robin refused to testify, fearing retaliation. Robin’s requests for medical care were denied. Officials made clear that there would be no services as long as there was no formal report of the abuse.

The predictability of Robin’s story makes it particularly alarming.

Robin is a woman; a male-to-female transgender woman held in a men’s prison.

Despite the fact that she self-identifies as a woman, has undergone hormone treatment, and is considered a woman by anyone who sees her, she is held in a general population housing unit in a large state prison for men.

Robin’s situation is far from unique. The majority of U.S. corrections systems house inmates based on their birth gender, disregarding other factors, such as physical appearance that may be entirely feminine or government identity documents that categorize these individuals as female. Not surprisingly, while in men’s detention facilities, most transgender women are sexually assaulted.

In a recent nationwide survey of inmates, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found sexual orientation to be the number one predictor of vulnerability to prisoner rape. A recent academic study of the experiences of hundreds of transgender women in California’s men’s prisons—a survey that was commissioned by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—revealed that 59 percent of male-to-female transgender prisoners had been sexually assaulted while incarcerated. An even higher number, 70 percent, reported having been subjected to sexual misconduct. A shocking zero percent of these inmates considered prison officials to be allies in protecting their physical safety.

These statistics tell only one part of the story. Transgender women who have been raped behind bars regularly contact my organization, Just Detention International. They speak about the additional abuse they suffered once they filed a sexual assault report, or requested medical and mental health treatment. Rather than receiving assistance, many encountered incredulity from corrections officials who blamed the survivors for the abuse, for being provocative and ‘asking for it.’ In the worst cases, transgender women who report a rape are themselves punished—for having engaged in prohibited sexual activity.

Fortunately, as a result of litigation, new policies and the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, several corrections systems have begun efforts to protect the safety of transgender prisoners. Some are heavy handed and of little help, like placing all transgender women in protective custody—a punitive, isolating measure that deprives them of access to services, programs, and the chance to leave their cells.

Others are taking a more nuanced approach. Washington, D.C.’s jail created a new policy earlier this year that takes into account the gender identity of inmates, as well as their own perception of vulnerability.

At the national level, the plight of transgender women and other vulnerable inmates was addressed on June 23, when the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission releases the first-ever binding national standards aimed at preventing and addressing sexual abuse in U.S. prisons, jails and other detention facilities.

Mandated by PREA, and created with input from corrections officials, prisoner rape survivors, advocates and other experts, these standards will require prison staff who make housing decisions to consider whether an inmate belongs to a known vulnerable population (such as being transgender). The standards will also spell out requirements for staff training, inmate education and sexual assault investigations. In addition, they will require facilities to provide prisoner rape survivors with access to medical and mental health services, even if they are too afraid to testify against their attackers.

When the government takes away someone’s liberty, it is responsible for protecting that person’s safety. Prisoner rape is a perversion of justice. The new national standards have the potential finally to end this type of violence. As for Robin White, she remains in a men’s prison, fearing for her safety every day.

Lovisa Stannow is the executive director of Just Detention International, an international human rights organization whose mission is to end sexual violence in all forms of detention.

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