Prison Rape And You, Down With Tyranny Blog, May 1, 2010

I was 20 when I first got to Afghanistan and I was 21 when I was arrested on the Afghan side of the Soviet border with 50 kilos of the best grade Mazar-i-Sharif black hash built into new cabinets in my beautiful Volkswagen camper. The border guards knew exactly what they were looking for. They got the car and the hash and I got tossed into prison. Within minutes I felt like I was in hell; it was-- to put it mildly-- the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I came to the realization that I would probably be dead by morning. My business partner back in Kabul was a relative of the king's and the son of a governor. He wasn't a prince but... was he ever a prince in my world. I was out of prison in less than an hour (and the next day I had my van and my hash back; hash wasn't illegal in Afghanistan although exporting it was, at least on the books). I didn't get raped, something that is common in these barbaric countries, like Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Russia... the U.S.A. It's really bad in Texas, of course. Society, and the authorities, seem to take a perverse and self-righteous satisfaction, if not glee, in prison rape. It's part of the system.

Even by the standards of the Texas justice system, the number of rapes committed in our prisons is astounding. And it's even more appalling that most of the rapists are corrections officers-- the very people charged with enforcing our laws.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that of the 10 U.S. prisons with the highest rates of sexual abuse, five are in Texas. The Estelle Unit, in Huntsville, is No. 1 on that wretched list.

Nationwide, 4.5 percent of prisoners report that they've been sexually victimized in the last 12 months. At the Estelle Unit, it's 15.7 percent. Assuming that Estelle is running near its capacity, that means roughly 470 people are raped there each year; many of those victims are raped more than once.

...Most often, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys, the rapists are corrections staff. The prisoners most at risk tend to be the weakest: women, gay men, juvenile offenders, the mentally disabled, the physically small and those new to life behind bars.

In every state, it's a crime for corrections officers to have sex with prisoners, whether it's consensual or not. But that crime is rarely prosecuted.

That needs to change. And lately, we have reason to hope that it will.

In 2003, George W. Bush signed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which prompted the studies we're quoting. Attorney General Eric Holder hopes that soon he'll be able to implement the actions those studies suggested. Some of those common-sense standards seem easy to put into effect: Have a written policy of zero tolerance toward all forms of sexual abuse, whether by prisoners or corrections personnel; make it mandatory that staff report any suspicions; assess inmates' risk of abuse; protect those most in danger. (Meaning: Don't put a scrawny, new-to-prison 18-year-old in the same cell as a big, violent known rapist.)

Yesterday was the last day of Sexual Assault Awareness Month and, as Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International explained at Huff Po, "Every year, more than 100,000 men, women and children are victimized while behind bars, usually by corrections officials whose very job it is to keep them safe. The U.S. Attorney General is currently reviewing national standards aimed at preventing and addressing this type of abuse. Until May 10, these measures are open for public comments."

If fully implemented, the national standards will spare countless Americans the horror of sexual abuse. But the standards are under threat. The reason: Prison officials claim that it will be too expensive to implement them-- too expensive to prevent staff from raping detainees.

Sexual assault anywhere is devastating, physically and emotionally. When such abuse happens in prison, victims face extreme challenges.

Incarcerated rape survivors tend to suffer in silence and are forced to remain in regular contact with their assailants. And prisoners have no access to rape crisis counseling in the aftermath of an attack.

In 2003, Congress recognized that the victimization of inmates constitutes a national crisis and so it unanimously passed the U.S. Prison Rape Elimination Act.

The national standards currently under review by Attorney General Eric Holder were developed by a bipartisan federal commission through extensive consultation with corrections officials, criminal justice experts, advocates and prisoner rape survivors. They are basic, common-sense measures, highlighting the need to train staff, identify likely rape victims and likely predators and ensure that prisons are subjected to independent audits.

By law, Attorney General Eric Holder has until June to review the standards and codify them as federal regulations, making them binding on detention facilities nationwide.

Sadly, it now looks like Holder will not meet his deadline. The delay is due, in large part, to a problematic cost projection study commissioned by the Justice Department in response to pressure from corrections leaders.

The moral case for these federal regulations is unassailable. But there is also a strong financial case since the standards would help eliminate sexual abuse that, in the past few years alone, has resulted in litigation costing corrections systems many millions of dollars in damages.

Contrary to what some critics say, the standards do not require substantial financial outlays. Corrections departments that already have started implementing the standards have been able to do so without increasing their spending. The experiences of these agencies refute the arguments of corrections officials who speculate that the standards will have a hefty price tag.

Last week Cliff Schecter also did a post at Huff Po on the subject. He reminds us of the shocking photos at Abu Ghraib that revolted the entire country world. When I spoke with him on the phone and told him I was going to blog about it as well, he asked me to be sure to include a link to the petition to Attorney General Holder. I hope you watched the short film up top. Watch this one too:

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