Lovisa Stannow, A chance to end the sexual abuse of prisoners, Bay Area Reporter, May 6, 2010

For countless lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender prisoners, sexual abuse is a devastating and daily reality. A recent government study of sexual violence in juvenile facilities found that almost one in eight youth detainees had been victimized in the preceding 12 months – kids who reported a "non-heterosexual" identity had been assaulted at twice that rate. Similar federal surveys of adult prisoners have found that gay and transgender inmates are by far the most likely to be sexually assaulted.

Transgender women, who typically are housed in men's institutions, face particularly shocking levels of violence. One study of the experiences of hundreds of transgender women in California's prisons – commissioned by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation – revealed that 59 percent had been sexually abused while behind bars. An even higher number, 70 percent, reported having been subjected to some form of sexual misconduct. Alarmingly, zero percent of these inmates considered prison officials to be allies in protecting their physical safety. In women's prisons, gender non-conforming and gay or bi-identified prisoners are not only more likely to be abused; corrections officials often stereotype them as likely perpetrators of sexual violence.

Every day, Just Detention International receives letters from prisoner rape survivors. Their accounts of abuse are horrific. Many also speak about the additional victimization they suffered when reporting an assault or requesting medical and mental health care. Rather than receiving protection and assistance, LGBT prisoner rape survivors regularly encounter disbelief, apathy, or ridicule from corrections officials. Even worse, gay and transgender rape victims are often blamed for the abuse by staff who think they are "asking for it" simply by being gay or transgender.

Rape is a crime across the U.S., and the Constitution bars corrections agencies from inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on detainees. Despite such legal protections, it is exceptionally difficult for prisoners to hold abusive corrections officials accountable – and officials know it. Prisoner rape thrives in facilities where predatory staff and inmates know they can get away with abuse. Deeply rooted institutional homophobia compounds the problem.

Now the good news: a tool that could dramatically improve safety behind bars is already available. Last June, a bipartisan government commission issued recommended national standards aimed at preventing and addressing sexual abuse in detention. Mandated by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, these standards draw on best practices already in use around the country, and include specific provisions to protect LGBT prisoners.

The standards require that housing decisions include a consideration of whether an inmate belongs to a known vulnerable population, such as being transgender, small in stature, or a first-time offender. At-risk individuals and survivors of sexual assault must not be housed with likely or known predators. The standards also spell out requirements for staff training, inmate education, and sexual assault investigations. They call on facilities to provide prisoner rape survivors with access to medical and mental health services even if inmates are too afraid to testify against their attackers.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is currently reviewing the standards, before issuing a final rule making them binding on detention facilities nationwide. Sadly, some corrections leaders are now pressuring Holder to weaken the standards. They claim that these measures will cost too much to implement – that it is too expensive to stop prisoner rape.

The reality is that the financial benefits of preventing sexual assault in detention – and surely they are less important than the moral considerations – are enormous. 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.

When survivors of prisoner rape require medical care, as they often do, corrections agencies bear most of the costs. And people traumatized by sexual assault behind bars often suffer serious long-term problems – including HIV infection, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and alcohol and other drug addictions. When survivors are released, local communities foot the bill for treating these conditions.

Until Monday, May 10, Holder is soliciting public comments on the proposed standards. LGBT organizations and individuals should take this opportunity to urge Holder to conduct his review promptly and to enact a strong set of measures aimed at ending sexual abuse in detention. By far the fastest and easiest way to submit a public comment in favor of the standards is to sign on to Just Detention International's petition, posted at http://www.justdetention.org.

When the government takes away someone's liberty, it is responsible for protecting that person's safety. Prisoner rape is a perversion of justice. The national standards promise to bring us closer than ever before to ending sexual violence behind bars.

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