Tom Strode, ERLC, others push Holder to get tougher on prison rape, Baptist Press, August 18, 2010

A diverse coalition that includes the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is urging Attorney General Eric Holder to adopt overdue standards for eliminating prison rape.

The coalition, which ranges from conservative to liberal organizations, sent a letter and held a Washington news conference in August to call on Holder to put into effect guidelines he was required by law to enact by June 23. The Department of Justice has indicated it expects to take another year to complete its review and adopt the standards, coalition members said at the Aug. 17 news conference.

The standards, presented in June 2009 by the congressionally established National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, are intended to solve a major problem in American detention facilities. The most recently reported study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found more than 60,000 inmates, or one in 20, were sexually assaulted at least once in the previous year. In juvenile detention institutions, nearly one in eight juveniles was sexually assaulted in the last year, according to BJS.

"[W]e are joining today to call on Attorney General Holder to stop dragging his feet, stop listening to the people who are trying to protect their own little turfs and finally give us some standards that will work to protect all people and honor the dignity and worth of every human being, even those that we have put in prison," said Barrett Duke of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) at the news conference.

Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship and a member of the commission that submitted the standards to Holder, told reporters that tens of thousands of inmates will be raped in the next year "because we haven't taken steps to prevent it. And that's -- that's a scandal. That's a stain on our national honor.

"The number of rapes in our facilities is preventable," Nolan said.

The coalition's Aug. 2 letter to Holder said the standards "will provide an important guide for corrections professionals to eliminate sexual abuse in their facilities and to measure the effectiveness of their efforts."

When adopted, the standards also will provide accountability that "will help reform-minded officials identify their facilities' strengths and weaknesses, while ensuring those who still deny the high incidence of sexual abuse of inmates no longer are able to minimize the problem," the letter said.

Prison officials opposing the standards have exaggerated their cost, according to the letter. California and Oregon have begun enforcing the proposed federal standards without significant new costs, it said.

ERLC President Richard Land was among the letter's signers. In addition to Nolan, the 35 signers included Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America, Tom Minnery of Focus on the Family, Tom McClusky of Family Research Council Action, Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals, John Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute, Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Hilary Shelton of the NAACP. Organizations endorsing the letter included the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ and Just Detention International.

The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act established the nine-member commission that was given the assignment of devising standards. The law also called for an annual Department of Justice review of the rate and effects of prison rape and provided funds for state use in protecting inmates, including for the prosecution of prison rapists.

At the news conference, Marilyn Shirley, a victim of prison rape, gave vivid, emotional testimony about her 2000 assault by a guard in a Texas prison. Her attacker eventually was convicted and sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison.

"I believe if these standards would have been in effect at the time, this never would have happened," she said. "Rape was not a part of my punishment."

Victims of prison rape, whether by staff or fellow inmates, "have committed crimes. They are paying the penalty for those crimes. Sexual abuse is not supposed to be part of that," Duke said. "And we believe that it violates the dignity of humanity for us not only to allow that in prison but then also for those who are aware of it not to do something about it.

"In Matthew chapter 25, Jesus said a hallmark of Christian discipleship is that we would actually help people who are in prison," he said. "If folks like Marilyn don't get help from people who claim that they are disciples of Jesus Christ, [those disciples] have significantly violated the calling that the Lord has put on them to see to the needs and care for those who are vulnerable and weak, and that includes people in prison.... Southern Baptists are committed to doing what we need to do to see to it that no one else ever stands here again to tell the story like Marilyn has told us."

Rape is "not treated as a crime" in most prisons, Nolan said at the news conference.

"The standards say they seal off the area as a crime scene; they should take statements from witnesses; they should collect evidence; they should have a rape kit, and they should provide medical and psychological treatment to the inmates that are subject to this abuse," he said. "And again, in most cases, that isn't done."

Even without implementation of the standards, the "culture is starting to change," Nolan told reporters. While some corrections officials acknowledge dealing with prison rape is important, "there are some foot-draggers," he said.

Speakers at the news conference said prisons need oversight from independent monitors.

"Prisons are very dark, closed places," said Margaret Winter, associate director of the ACLU's national prison project. "And what we need in the prisons to stop prison rape is light, light and more light. And these standards are going to help make that happen, and that's why we really can't afford any more delays."

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