PRESS RELEASES - 2007

Stories from Inside: Prisoner Rape and the War on Drugs

Los Angeles, March 22, 2007 | Read Stories from Inside

Stories from Inside Book CoverIt is widely accepted that the U.S. “war on drugs” has been both costly and ineffective. Less known is the devastating link between current U.S. drug policies, prison overcrowding, and rape behind bars. In Stories from Inside, a report released today, Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR) makes clear for the first time how the war on drugs has contributed to the sexual violence that plagues prisons and jails across the country, derailing justice and shattering human dignity.

Stories from Inside offers first-hand accounts by 24 prisoner rape survivors, all of whom were sexually assaulted while serving time for a non-violent drug-related offense. The report also offers an overview and analysis of the war on drugs, highlighting how it affects the sentences and prison experiences of hundreds of thousands of Americans and making policy recommendations.  

The stories of prisoner rape survivors from 16 states and the District of Columbia form part of Stories from Inside: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

“Anyone can become a victim of prisoner rape, but non-violent drug offenders who are unschooled in the ways of prison life tend to be targeted, especially when they are housed in cramped cells or in poorly monitored dormitories that were never meant to hold inmates in the first place,” said Lovisa Stannow, SPR’s Co-Executive Director.

With laws requiring longer sentences for drug offenses and less judicial discretion for leniency, the war on drugs has resulted in a mushrooming of the inmate population. In the U.S. today, more than 500,000 people are incarcerated on drug charges alone, with thousands more imprisoned on drug-motivated crimes, such as property offenses and public order violations. Overcrowded facilities, rife with tension, are breeding grounds for sexual abuse, and non-violent drug offenders are among those at greatest risk for violence.

Prisoner rape remains vastly underreported, with victims too afraid to speak out for fear of stigma or future attacks. Recent research studies suggest that as many as 20 percent of male prisoners in the U.S. have been pressured or coerced into sex, and 10 percent have been raped. In a study at one women’s facility, more than a quarter of the inmates reported that they had been subjected to sexual abuse. With little or no institutional protection, victims are left with physical injuries, are impregnated against their will, contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and suffer severe psychological harm.

Bryson Martel was sent to prison for writing a bad check to support his crack cocaine addiction. Raped repeatedly by more than 25 inmates in an Arkansas prison, Martel contracted HIV and was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 2002. “It’s awful that a person would have to go in and pay that price like that,” he said. “I paid double price. That check I wrote cost me my life.”  

Some 95 percent of U.S. inmates eventually return home, bringing their prison experiences with them. For survivors of sexual violence, the emotional and physical scars of the abuse they endured while incarcerated can fester for years, even decades, profoundly affecting family, friends, and the wider community.

Marilyn Shirley, a Texan who was incarcerated for conspiracy to distribute drugs, was raped by a corrections officer while one of his colleagues stood watch. Today, years after the attack, she is still struggling to cope with everyday activities. “I can’t even hold my grandbaby because I’m afraid of having a panic attack and dropping her. I can’t do some of the basic things, like watch certain TV shows, or go over high freeway overpasses because I start to panic,” she said. “Now that I am out of prison, I am left with the devastating impacts of the rape.”   

Prisoner rape is known to be a significant problem in U.S. prisons and jails – and the ways to prevent this type of violence are known as well. In Stories from Inside, SPR offers concrete recommendations, urging corrections authorities to introduce inmate classification and housing policies that protect vulnerable detainees from violence, and calling for reduced incarceration rates for people convicted of non-violent drug offenses.

Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR) is a national human rights organization committed to ending sexual violence against men, women, and children in all forms of detention.

For a copy of the Stories from Inside report, click here. For more information, please contact Amber Durfield at:
 adurfield@spr.org or (213) 384-1400 ext. 102.