JDI IN THE NEWS - ARCHIVED

Jennifer Bjorhus, Founder of Prison-Rape Web Site Fears Censorship, The Seattle Times, February 8, 1996.

Prisons and jails are a "network of training grounds for rape," says Redmond resident Ellen Spertus, creator of a popular World Wide Web site focusing on sexual assault behind bars.

The Web site is a home for information from the national nonprofit group Stop Prisoner Rape, one of 19 plaintiffs, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, joining an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed today in federal court in Philadelphia. The lawsuit challenges the Internet "indecency" provisions of the Telecommunications Bill - was signed into law today by President Clinton - and seeks a temporary restraining order against them.

Spertus and the ACLU fear the legislation poses a direct threat to free speech on the Internet and will stifle groups that some people may find offensive, such as the Planned Parenthood Federation; WildCat Press, a publisher of gay and lesbian literature; and Stop Prisoner Rape.

"Even if they don't go after our site, I'm personally concerned that unpopular viewpoints (will) get censored," Spertus said.

>From the computer in her office in Sieg Hall at the University of Washington, Spertus, a 27-year-old visiting scholar and doctoral candidate in computer science, posts everything from first-person accounts of jailhouse gang rape and advice on how to pair up with a prisoner to avoid multiple abuses to sexual-assault statistics and legal information.

Spertus, who also maintains the Web site for Global Fund for Women, an international feminist organization, said she hadn't really thought about the issue of prison rape until a few years ago when she read a newspaper article about it.

She called Stop Prison Rape to help out and then launched the Web site about a year and half ago. Now, the Web site has 5,000 electronic visits every week, Spertus said.

The Web site publishes the only known data on sexual assault in adult jails. Stop Prisoner Rape estimates that 290,000 males are sexually assaulted in jail every year, 192,000 of them raped.

In addition, nearly one-quarter of men in the Nebraska prison system reported they were forced to have sexual contact against their will, according to a 1994 survey. Based on the survey, Stop Prisoner Rape estimates 197,000 adult male prisoners are sexually assaulted each year, 119,000 of them raped.

Jails are run by cities and counties. Prisons are run by the state or federal government and house inmates incarcerated for more than one year.

"It (rape) turns non-violent, middle-class criminals - first-time offenders - into hardened criminals who will be angry and come out more violent," Spertus said. "The problem is perhaps worse in juvenile institutions."

The Web site carries a warning about sexually explicit language, Spertus said, and can be screened out when parents install SurfWatch, a software product designed to black out the pages of about 200 Internet news groups that have sexually explicit material.

Despite such safeguards, the ACLU fears the law will allow prosecutors to go after groups deemed by some as questionable.

The ACLU lawsuit targets two key provisions of the bill: One that prohibits "indecency" and a provision that prohibits depictions of offensive sexual material.

Those provisions are too vague and cast too wide a net, the ACLU argues.

"Nobody knows how to define indecency," argued Marjorie Heins, senior staff attorney for the ACLU. Heins said no one really knows how the law would be applied. But she doubts exceptions will be made for "offensive" material that has literary or political value.