Lovisa Stannow and Scott Medlock, Stannow and Medlock: Texas and prison sexual abuse, Dallas Morning News, September 13, 2010

While imprisoned by the state of Texas for a property crime, John was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a prison official. The officer moved John to solitary confinement where no one could see what was happening. There he forced John to perform oral sex. If John didn't comply, the officer explained, he would never be paroled and would be denied meals. "It was a nightmare," said John. "I lived in dread knowing what he could do to me."

John's story is far from unique. Based on surveys conducted in prisons and jails across the country, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 88,500 inmates nationwide were sexually abused at their current facility last year. The results for Texas are especially disturbing.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice runs three of the five men's prisons with the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse in the country, according to the survey. At the Hughes Unit, in Gatesville, nearly 9 percent of inmates surveyed said they had been sexually assaulted by another inmate – more than quadruple the national average. The Allred Unit, near Wichita Falls, and the Michael Unit, near Palestine, both had inmate-on-inmate abuse rates more than triple the national average.

Texas prison officials also rape inmates at alarming rates, according to the study. At the Ferguson Unit, in Midway, 7.6 percent of inmates reported sexual abuse by staff in the preceding year – nearly three times the national average. In a similar report released in January 2010, Texas' juvenile facilities fared just as poorly.

As appalling as these figures are, mere numbers can obscure the real issue. Consider the case of Dwight, a gay inmate at the Allred Unit who has been assaulted again and again by other inmates. Officials responded to his pleas for help with anti-gay jokes and by stating they don't believe a homosexual can be raped.

In facilities where sexual abuse is widespread, violence of every kind – including against officials – tends to flourish. When sexual abuse survivors return home, as the vast majority of them do, they bring their trauma and medical conditions with them, back to their families and communities. Ultimately, Texas taxpayers incur the significant – and avoidable – financial burdens of prisoner rape.

The surveys make clear that sexual abuse behind bars is preventable. Such violence is rampant in some facilities, but rare in others. The differences stem from whether facility leaders are committed to keeping inmates safe, the level of respect among staff for professional boundaries, and the quality of written policies and day-to-day practices.

The federal law that mandated the Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys, the Prison Rape Elimination Act, also required U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to ratify national standards aimed at ending sexual abuse behind bars. By law, he should have finalized them by June 23, 2010, but he missed that deadline and no new date has been set.

Rather than waiting for Holder to get his job done, Texas needs to begin implementing the recommended national standards. Many TDCJ officials are already trying to do the right thing. Now TDCJ leadership must support these good men and women by providing them with the tools they need to keep inmates safe.

Continued inaction simply costs too much, especially for prisoners like John and Dwight. No matter what crime someone may have committed, rape must not be part of the penalty.

This op-ed was also published in The Houston Chronicle on Spetember 19, 2010

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