Linda McFarlane, Op-ed: Corrections Policies are Crucial: Ending Prisoner Rape in Michigan, July 21, 2009, The Detroit Free Press

The Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) last week settled a class action lawsuit brought by over 500 female prisoners who were sexually abused in the state’s prisons. With the $100-million settlement agreement, hopefully the DOC will also begin to take the proactive steps needed to prevent and address the sexual violence that continues to plague its facilities.

This decision came after more than ten years of litigation, during which the courts repeatedly ruled against the state.

Although the prevalence of sexual abuse in Michigan prisons is well documented, leading officials have insisted that this type of violence is not a serious problem. In 2008, DOC Director Patricia Caruso opposed national standards being developed to address sexual abuse behind bars, stating that they would require that a “disproportionate amount of resources be dedicated to an issue that affects less than 1% of the DOC prison population.”

This claim is in blatant defiance of the facts. A 2007 national survey by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, which surveyed inmates at three Michigan prisons, found that the proportion of prisoners experiencing sexual victimization in the past year alone ranged from 4.6% to 7.9%.

Rape and other forms of sexual violence cause long-term harm to survivors and their communities. Prisoner rape survivors suffer physical injury, contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and experience severe psychological trauma. The vast majority of inmates ultimately return home, bringing their experiences and medical and psychiatric conditions with them.

In addition to avoiding future multi-million dollar lawsuits, implementing carefully developed measures aimed at stopping this abuse will improve public health. It is also the best way for the government to meet its responsibility to protect every inmate from sexual abuse.

Last month, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission released the final version of the standards that Caruso had criticized. Mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, these standards have the potential to become the most important tool so far in the effort to end sexual abuse in our nation’s prisons.

They call for prison housing decisions to take into account whether an inmate belongs to a known vulnerable population (such as being gay, transgender or a first-time inmate). They spell out requirements for staff training, inmate education and sexual assault investigations. In addition, they mandate that facilities provide prisoner rape survivors with access to medical and mental health care services, even if they are too afraid to testify against their attackers. If fully implemented, these measures will spare countless Michigan prisoners the devastation of rape.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has one year to encode the standards as part of federal regulation, after which Michigan and other states will have one year to certify their compliance with the standards or lose a portion of their federal corrections-related funding.

When the government removes someone’s liberty, it takes on an absolute responsibility to protect that person’s safety. As made abundantly clear by the scores of women who have been abused on its watch, the Michigan Department of Corrections has every reason to do the same.

Linda McFarlane is the deputy executive director of Just Detention International, an international human rights organization based in Los Angeles whose mission is to end sexual violence in all forms of detention.

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