Linda McFarlane, Op-ed: An End to Prison Rape, Change.org,
July 16, 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, prison officials nationwide are failing at this responsibility all too often.
In inmate surveys conducted in 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that 4.5 percent (or 60,500) of the more than 1.3 million inmates held in federal and state prisons had been sexually abused in the previous year alone and that nearly 25,000 jail detainees had been sexually abused in the previous six months. These surveys were snapshots, reaching only inmates present on a particular day. As the annual number of admissions to county jails is 17 times higher than the jail population on any day, the BJS data represent just the tip of the iceberg.
There is hope, however. Last month, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission (NPREC) released its recommendations for the first-ever binding national standards addressing sexual abuse in U.S. prisons and jails. Mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, the standards address core prison management issues, such as staff training, inmate education, housing, investigations, and medical and mental health care in the aftermath of an assault. The U.S. Attorney General has until June 23, 2010 (one year from the release of the standards) to codify them into federal regulation.
Developed with input from corrections officials, prisoner rape survivors, and advocates, these standards are one of the best tools to date to help put an end to sexual abuse in the nation’s detention facilities. Many corrections agencies have already begun developing policies to improve inmate safety.
Just Detention International (JDI) is working with officials in Oregon and California to become ‘early adopters’ of these standards – by bringing the Oregon Department of Corrections and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation into compliance even before they are required to do so. In doing so, these state agencies are becoming models for corrections systems nationwide.
Both systems have already made tangible improvements. In California, JDI helped secure a community-based rape crisis counselor on the sexual assault response teams at 31 of the state’s 33 prisons and provided cross-training so that the counselors and prison officials understand each other’s respective jobs and are able to work together in a constructive way. In Oregon, the Department of Corrections established an inmate hotline, so that survivors can safely contact the Inspector General’s office when they are too afraid to report an assault to a prison official.
The effort to implement the standards is also helping to change the violent culture of corrections and to bring a human rights framework into these prisons and jails, often for the very first time. It’s a logical progression from the original reason for engaging in these partnerships: 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.
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 unanimously passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act. That is what JDI has learned by working with corrections agencies to proactively tackle this issue. The new national standards recognize this truth, and are an invaluable tool for corrections agencies to use in this fight.
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.
No matter what crime someone has committed, rape must not be part of the penalty.