Lovisa Stannow, Otter Creek is not unique: Sex abuse common in prison, Lexington Herald-Leader, September 14, 2009

Troubling accusations continue to emerge about sexual abuse of inmates at the Otter Creek Correctional Center, a private prison in Wheelwright. The latest indictment of a former staff member at the facility accused of raping a female inmate comes just days after Gov. Steve Beshear rebuked calls from state legislators to move inmates out of the private facility. In the meantime, Beshear’s counterpart in Hawaii has ordered the transfer of all her state’s inmates out of Otter Creek after an investigation confirmed the allegations.

At least 23 women have come forward to report sexual abuse by officials at Otter Creek, which is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). One of the victims wrote that being sexually assaulted by an officer at the facility left her feeling “lots of fear, anxiety, and hurt. I feel lost and empty — very unsure of myself.”

Unfortunately, her experience is all too common. A 2007 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that approximately 60,500 inmates (female and male) held in federal or state prisons had been sexually assaulted by corrections staff or another inmate in the previous year alone. A BJS survey of local jails was equally alarming and academic studies have documented rates of sexual abuse as high as 25 percent in the worst women’s prisons. Recently, the Michigan Department of Corrections agreed to a $100 million settlement, after years of litigation surrounding rampant staff sexual misconduct in its women’s facilities.

Sexual abuse in detention constitutes human rights and public-health crises. It causes terrible harm to survivors and creates unsafe conditions for corrections staff and inmates alike. The devastating impact of rape behind bars not only shatters the lives of prisoners, it hurts the rest of us as well. Once released — and more than 95 percent of inmates do eventually return home — rape survivors bring their emotional trauma and medi­cal conditions back to their communities.

We now have a powerful new tool available to combat this crisis. In June, the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission released the first-ever binding national standards aimed at preventing and addressing sexual abuse in prisons and jails, including private facilities like Otter Creek. Mandated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003 and developed with input from corrections officials, prison rape survivors and advocates, these standards can help put an end to sexual abuse in prison in Kentucky, and across the nation.

The standards spell out requirements for staff training, inmate education and sexual assault investigations. They call for prison housing decisions to take into account whether an inmate belongs to a known vulnerable population (such as being young, mentally ill or transgender) and for disciplinary and criminal action to be taken against perpetrators. The standards further 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.

Elected officials like Beshear have an important role to play in ensuring that these standards are fully implemented.

Under PREA, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has until next June to encode the new standards as part of binding federal regulations. Beshear and other Kentucky officials should urge him to enact the standards swiftly and without diluting them. Beshear should also refuse to contract with private prison companies whose facilities do not comply with these crucial measures.

When the government removes someone’s liberty, it takes on an absolute responsibility to protect that person’s safety. It’s time for Kentucky’s elected officials to show leadership on this important issue. Beshear must hold CCA accountable for what has been happening at Otter Creek, and he must prevent sexual abuse in detention from continuing by supporting the enactment and implementation of strong standards.

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