Amanda Hess, Prison rape's reporting problem, TBD Blog, September 8, 2010

Last week, the Washington Post editorial board urged Attorney General Eric Holder to enact new national standards to help end prison rape in facilities across America.

The editorial draws on findings from a new Bureau of Justice Statistics report which estimates that "at least 88,500 adults were sexually abused in U.S. prisons and jails in the past year"—that's "4.4 percent of prison inmates and 3.1 percent of those in jail," not including juveniles. But the Post found one "bright spot" in the report: "Twenty-eight of the nation's 286 jails and six of its 167 prisons had no reported incidents of sexual victimization. It is possible: Rape is not part of the penalty those behind bars must pay to society."

Some current problems the new standards hope to address: Fear of reporting an assault; suppression of assault reports; retaliation against victims who do speak up. So are facilities that claim to have zero incidents of sexual assault truly a "bright spot"?

In this case, yes. “In the case of official reporting, we want to see those numbers go up before they even out or decrease,” says Darby Hickey, communications director for Just Detention International, the leading organization combating sexual violence against inmates. “This report is a little different.”

The BJS report, based on personal interviews with 81,566 inmates, is less likely to suffer from under-reporting than official channels are. “Since it's inmates themselves reporting, anonymously, it's likely much closer to the actual picture," says Hickey. "Of course, there are still those who won't report even when anonymous, as well as those who might make false reports. But basically, to us, the numbers show what we have argued—prisoner rape is not inevitable. Some facilities have successfully kept it from happening—some by chance, others by effort—and its possible for all prisons and jails to do the same.”

Unfortunately, local prisons examined in the BJS report aren't a part of the Post's "bright spot." Locally, Virginia's Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, Maryland's Caroline County Jail, and Virginia's Eastern Shore Regional Jail were all found to have particularly high rates of sexual abuse.

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