Alex Davidson, Prison Rape: A Hidden Crisis, criminaljustice.change.org, June 26, 2009

Prison sexual assault is such a hidden problem in the United States that, until this week, no one even knew how many people were victims of this cruel treatment. Now, thanks to a government study, we’re at last getting a sense of the problem and why certain people, like short, gay and trans folks, are targeted.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted its first wave of surveys in 2007 in a random sample of 146 State and Federal prisons and 282 local jails. Approximately 63,817 prisoners filled out the survey, going way beyond academic surveys that, to this point, were the only attempts to get figures on sexual abuse in detention centers. Exactly 4.5% of prisoners surveyed reported experiencing sexual abuse one or more times during the 12 months preceding the survey or over their term of incarceration if they had been confined in that facility for less than 12 months. According to the final report, “Extrapolated to the national prison population, an estimated 60,500 State and Federal prisoners were sexually abused during that 12-month period.”

The problem is, the U.S. media is not qualifying this number in any way, forgetting to note that centers like youth and community corrections facilities were excluded, and that under-reporting by prisoners can severely sway the outcomes. So while the initial study was a good one, later results will likely shed a more detailed light on what's going on. I spoke about the issue yesterday with Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International, an organization fighting abuse in U.S. detention centers.

“The actual rates [of abuse] are much higher,” says Stannow, whose group helped push for the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 that ultimately called for the creation of a national commission to study the causes and consequences of sexual abuse in confinement. As a result, this commission has developed standards for correctional facilities nationwide that aims to eliminate prison rape.

The U.S. prison problem is a large one, as change.org community members already know. According to the commission’s report earlier this week, more than 7.3 million Americans are confined in U.S. correctional facilities or supervised in the community, at a cost of more than $68 billion a year. “Given our country’s enormous investment in corrections, we should ensure that these environments are as safe and productive as they can be," Stannow said. "Sexual abuse undermines those goals. It makes correctional environments more dangerous for staff as well as prisoners, consumes scarce resources, and undermines rehabilitation.”

Still, solving prison abuse won't end tomorrow. One of the major factors for this is overcrowding. The Bureau of Justice Statistics explains that 19 states and the federal system were operating at more than 100% of their highest capacity in 2007. An equal number of states operated at somewhere between 90% to 99% of capacity. “ When facilities operate at or beyond capacity, prisoners also have fewer or no opportunities to participate in education, job training, and other programming. Idleness and the stress of living in crowded conditions often lead to conflict. Meaningful activities will not end sexual abuse, but they are part of the solution.”

California’s prisons are running at 200% of capacity, thanks to laws that have non-violent criminals serving jail sentences along with the likes of violent offenders. It’s this mix, along with no public space or common areas, that has prison abuse on the rise.

“It’s not just about the number of people in these prisoners, but these non-violent, first-time prisoners get targeted for prison abuse. They don’t have the street smarts you need to survive in prisons,” Stannow says. “ On top of that, prisoners now have nothing to do, because the common areas are all gone.”

So what’s a solution? Incarcerate fewer people. The financial crisis may have a greater hand in achieving this than any form of public pressure would have had in the past. Already, California’s Terminator-In-Chief Arnold Schwarzenegger has floated the idea of releasing thousands of prisoners to ease the Golden State’s current budget crisis. If California goes ahead with this, expect other states to follow.

Looking ahead, expect more statistics and studies to come from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ office. The bureau’s second round of surveys is done and findings will be published this fall and into early 2010.

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