Sex with prisoners, Louisville Courier-Journal, August 1, 2009

Dostoyevsky said, “A society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals.”

If so, we've got a lot to answer for.

Congress conservatively estimates that at least 13 percent of inmates in the U.S. have been sexually assaulted while in prison. A 2004 study of more than 2,700 U.S. correctional facilities showed prison employees to be facing sexual misconduct charges in all but one prison.

At the Otter Creek Correctional Center for women in Wheelwright, Ky., 16 allegations of custodial sexual abuse are currently under investigation — evidence that prison guards' abuse of inmates is not a matter of a few isolated incidents, but is a widely accepted rite.

The situation is especially dire in Kentucky because it is one of only three states to treat sex between guards and inmates as a misdemeanor, not a felony.

When a prison guard has sex with an inmate, says Melissa Rothstein of Just Detention International, “one person literally has the keys to a person's entire way of living.” Under no circumstances can that be considered consensual.

We suspend someone's freedoms when we sentence her to jail, but that suspension of freedoms must never mean subjection to violence.

The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which passed with unanimous consent in both the U.S. House and Senate, established a zero-tolerance policy for prison rape and called for organized research and data gathering to track sexual violence in prisons.

Kentucky's response to the troubling data collected under PREA has been insufficient. There was finally a bill in the state legislature to make custodial sex a felony offense, but this year's session ended before it could pass.

Kentucky needs to show that it takes seriously sexual violence in prisons — whether among inmates or between a guard and an inmate — by passing that bill in the next session.

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