Lovisa Stannow, Op-ed: Assistance must reach prisoner rape survivors, The Huffington Post, November 20, 2009
It has been twenty-five years since Congress passed the Victims of Crime Act. This important legislation has done a lot of good. But it could do more good with one simple change.
The Victims of Crime Act funds essential mental health and medical services to victims of sexual abuse. Thanks to the act, countless rape survivors get the help they need to address emotional scars and physical injuries in the aftermath of an assault.
But there is a problem with this landmark act. A one-sentence funding restriction, inserted into the regulations that govern the distribution of Victims of Crime Act funds, precludes the most marginalized rape survivors in the United States from receiving assistance. Here is that sentence: "Funds cannot support services to incarcerated individuals, even when the service pertains to the victimization of that individual."
This restriction is cold and shortsighted.
Sexual abuse plagues U.S. prisons and jails. With alarming frequency, corrections staff abuse inmates whose safety they are supposed to protect. Officials were implicated in more than half the reports of sexual abuse received during recent inmate surveys by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A 2007 survey found that 4.5 percent of the 1.3 million inmates held in state and federal prisons had experienced sexual assault in the previous year. That comes to an appalling 60,500 individuals. Not one of them was sentenced to rape.
A similar Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of county jail inmates was equally shocking: Nearly 25,000 jail detainees reported being sexually abused in the preceding six months alone. Most of the victims of such violence are young, first-time, nonviolent inmates.
Rape is a crime, no matter where it occurs and regardless of who the victim is. When the victim is an inmate, he or she is in particular need of assistance.
Prisoners cannot get away from their attackers or go to the police. Incarcerated rape survivors often suffer in silence, as fear of retaliation and ridicule keep them from reporting sexual abuse. Even when survivors do file a formal complaint with corrections staff, the vast majority receive no mental health services through the prisons or jails.
Local rape crisis centers are the backbone of post-rape assistance in the community. However, many of these rape crisis centers are unable to serve inmates, since funding from the Victims of Crime Act is their lifeline.
By preventing these organizations from assisting prisoners, the regulatory restriction all but ensures that inmates who have been raped will suffer long-term harm.
As a result, once released - and the vast majority of detainees eventually do return home - these inmates bring their untreated trauma back to their communities.
The government should encourage community-based service providers to work closely with prisons and jails.
After 25 years, it is time for the Victims of Crime Act to recognize that sexual abuse does not stop at the prison gates, and neither should assistance to its victims.
This article was also featured on The Progressive (10/28), KFSM - Fort Smith, AR (10/29), The Sacramento Bee (10/29), The Dialy News (11/06), and The Albuquerque Journal (11/21).