Inquirer Editorial: Prison equals rape, September 18, 2010, The Philadelphia Enquirer

Fans of the film The Shawshank Redemption may remember these lines spoken by the character Red in describing the ordeal suffered by his fellow prison inmate Andy Dufresne:

I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that - but prison is no fairy-tale world. He never said who did it, but we all knew. Things went on like that for a while - prison life consists of routine, and then more routine. Every so often, Andy would show up with fresh bruises. The Sisters kept at him - sometimes he was able to fight 'em off, sometimes not. And that's how it went for Andy - that was his routine.

Even if you didn't see the movie, you may have guessed by now that Andy was a victim of prison rape. The staged depiction of his assault was hard enough to watch in the film. But it's no fiction for thousands of real inmates whose attacks have been catalogued by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In a report released last month, the BJS said an estimated 88,500 prison and jail inmates in this country were victims of sexual assault at least once in the preceding 12 months. Those figures were obtained through a survey of 167 state and federal prisons, 286 jails, and 10 special facilities.

Among victims of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization, 21 percent of males in prison and 37 percent of males in jails reported being injured in the assault.

"Prisoner rape is a nationwide human rights crisis," said Lovisa Stannow, executive director of Just Detention International. She said her organization gets hundreds of letters from inmates who are forced by their attackers to be silent or suffer the consequences.

"If an inmate is being raped he can holler and scream," said Houston County, Ala., Sheriff Andy Hughes, whose jail was among those with the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate assault. He should know fear for their lives keeps inmates quiet.

But the assailants aren't always other inmates. The BJS report cited prison and jail staffs as also being among the predators. While that might imply consensual relationships, that can hardly be the case when one person is in a position of power over the other.

The most daunting aspect of this issue is the failure of authorities to take the steps necessary to reduce prison assaults. That failure goes all the way up to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who for 15 months has sat on proposed national standards that could help alleviate the problem.

Holder missed a June 23 deadline to ratify standards mandated in 2003 by the Prison Rape Elimination Act. That law set up a commission whose recommendations include better staff training, inmate education, medical and mental-health treatment for sexual-abuse victims, and regular independent inmate-safety audits.

Ratification by Holder will bind federal facilities to the standards immediately, while state and local governments will have a year to comply or risk losing federal funding for corrections. He needs to act now. As Stannow said, "Every day that the attorney general doesn't finalize the national standards is another day of anguish among rape survivors."

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