PRESS RELEASES - 2003

U.S. Senate Passes Legislation to Curb Prisoner Rape

July 21, 2003

WASHINGTON D.C. - The United States Senate voted by unanimous consent  today to approve the first-ever federal legislation to address the problem of sexual assault in detention facilities, the Prison Rape Elimination of Act of 2003 (S. 1435).

The bill is slated for a suspension calendar vote by the House of  Representatives on Wednesday (H.R. 1707). "The passage of this bill by the Senate marks historic progress on the most neglected form of abuse in the nation," said Lara Stemple,  executive director of Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR), a national human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual violence against men, women, and youth in detention.

SPR anticipates that the House will move decisively on the legislation  as well. If the House approves a bill whose language is identical to  that passed by the Senate, the legislation can move forward for  presidential signature without going to conference to reconcile differences.

"Rape behind bars is dehumanizing and sometimes deadly," Stemple said.  "Victims have been left beaten and bloodied, they have suffered  long-term psychological harm, they have been impregnated against their will, and they have contracted HIV. It's time to take this important step to address the problem."

One in five men in prison has been sexually abused, often by other inmates. Rates for women, who are most likely to be abused by male staff, reach as high as one in four in some facilities.

The bill calls for the gathering of national statistics about the problem; the development of guidelines for states about how to address prisoner rape; the creation of a review panel to hold annual hearings; and the provision of grants to states to combat the problem. "Unfortunately, in many facilities throughout the country sexual abuse continues virtually unchecked," said Stemple. "Too often, corrections officers turn a blind eye, or in the case of women inmates, actually perpetrate the abuse. We hope federal legislation will not only create incentives for states to take this problem seriously, but also give facilities the tools and information they need to prevent it."

The passage of the bill follows SPR's event on Capitol Hill called Stories of Survival: Recognizing Rape Behind Bars. The June 24 event featured members of Congress and seven survivors of rape behind bars and their family members, who spoke out publicly about the suffering caused by prisoner rape.

Linda Bruntmyer spoke at the event about the suicide of her son, Rodney, who hung himself at the age of 17 to escape repeated sexual assault in an adult prison. "This is not what we mean when we say justice. Rape should not be considered a part of the punishment. Rape is always a crime," Bruntmyer said.

Noting that more work will be needed after the Prison Rape Elimination Act is signed into law, Stemple said: "Tolerance of this systemic abuse erodes the very foundation on which our system of justice is built. In addition to effective legislation, we need mental health services for survivors, lawsuits aimed at reform, and greater sympathy on the part of the public."