Lovisa Stannow, Op-ed: California moving to stop sexual assaults in prison, Los Angeles Daily News, October 13, 2010
After being transferred to California's Pleasant Valley State Prison, Jason hoped that officials would help protect him. He had been raped at his previous facility and knew he was likely to be targeted again.
Instead, prison staff ignored his pleas and placed him in a cell with a known rapist. Jason was assaulted again and again. In the face of staff indifference and threats of retaliation, he endured rapes for six months before deliberately attacking another inmate to get himself sent to solitary confinement.
Jason'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 had been sexually abused at their current facility in the preceding year. The BJS report, released Aug. 26, identifies Pleasant Valley in Coalinga as one of the prisons with the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual abuse in the country. Another state prison, the California Medical Facility, also earned this dubious distinction. Both had rates that were more than double the national average.
The numbers tell only part of the story. Victims of sexual violence behind bars are left beaten and bloodied, contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and suffer severe psychological harm.
As in Jason's case, the initial assault is often just the beginning. Survivors can be abused relentlessly and marked as fair game for attacks by others. And when rape survivors return home, as the vast majority of them do, they bring their trauma and medical conditions with them.
Despite the horrific nature of this abuse, there is good news. The BJS report shows that sexual abuse behind bars is preventable. Such violence flourishes in some facilities but is 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.
California and federal courts have recognized the duty of corrections staff to protect inmates in their charge. Likewise, the state legislature and the U.S. Congress have affirmed that officials can, and must, prevent sexual violence in their facilities. In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which calls for zero-tolerance for sexual abuse behind bars. Two years later, California enacted a similar law: the Sexual Abuse in Detention Elimination Act, which requires the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to prevent and respond to sexual abuse in its prisons.
The federal law required U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to ratify binding national standards addressing sexual violence in detention by June23, but he missed that deadline and no new date has been set. Thankfully, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has made the sound decision not to stand by and wait, but to begin implementing the standards early, before being required to do so. The high rate of sexual abuse at California prisons is a reminder of the urgency of this work.
So far, the effort to implement the standards is focused in two adult prisons - the California Institution for Women and the California Correctional Institution. At these large and troubled facilities, staff are receiving specialized training, inmates are getting comprehensive information about their rights and responsibilities, and those who have been subjected to abuse are receiving confidential counseling with community rape counselors.
These are essential steps toward eliminating prisoner rape. Change will not happen overnight, however, as corrections leaders have allowed this type of abuse to fester inside our prisons for decades. As the countless inmates across the state who have been victimized can surely attest, much work remains to be done.