Tom Benning, Inmate advocates support standards against sexual assault in prisons, Dallas Morning News, August 18, 2010
Marilyn Shirley is still haunted by the whispered words of the guard who raped her at a Fort Worth federal prison a decade ago.
"Don't even think of telling anyone," the guard said. "You are a convict, and I am a fine upstanding officer. Who do you think they will believe?"
Shirley eventually brought her attacker to justice, but she said she'll never forget the feelings of hopelessness and fear.
To help prevent others from suffering the same ordeal, she joined inmate advocacy groups Tuesday in urging Attorney General Eric Holder to adopt standards against sexual assault.
The guidelines, which generally are supported by Texas officials, call for reviewing inmates to see if they are particularly vulnerable or likely to be a predator; screening staff for past sexual misconduct; and treating prison rape as a crime scene by sealing off the area to collect evidence and witness statements.
Shirley, who now lives in Wylie , said the standards might have saved her. "Rape was not a part of my punishment," she said.
The standards, recommended by a national commission more than a year ago, are the result of a decades-long struggle to change prison culture. And Texas – with its state prison population of more than 155,000 – often has been at the center of that effort.
National reports and surveys have tagged Texas prisons with among the highest rates of sexual abuse.
Still, Texas officials and inmate advocates say the state has made strides to combat the problem.
It remains "a deeply troubled system, but there is something positive beginning to happen," said Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International.
Texas started a program in 2001 to educate inmates and officers about prison rape and to take steps to prevent sexual assault.
And the state is unique in having a federal prosecution unit dedicated to pursuing crimes, including sexual assaults, committed in prisons.
"Texas has come a long way in stopping sexual violence in prisons," said Gina DeBottis, the unit's prosecutor.
The Justice Department is reviewing the standards, and a spokeswoman said a decision is expected this fall.