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Stop Prisoner Rape: A Brief History

Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR) was founded in 1980 by Russell Dan Smith as “People Organized to Stop the Rape of Imprisoned Persons” (POSRIP). The group's mission, as stated in its first newsletter, was to deal “with the problems of rape, sexual assault, un-consensual sexual slavery, and forced prostitution in the prison context." Like many of those involved in the early days of the organization, Smith himself was a survivor of rape behind bars.

Soon renamed “Stop Prisoner Rape” the organization served as a voice for corrections reform during a time when few others had the courage to do so. SPR was the only group that was willing to confront the issue of inmate sexual assault for decades, and it remained afloat only through the dedication of volunteer staff members. SPR helped survivors of rape file damage claims, provided referrals for expert testimony, and encouraged class action suits against negligent institutions.

SPR was incorporated in 1994 by Stephen Donaldson, who was then its Eastern Regional Director and who went on to become its President. Donaldson, like Smith, was a victim of prisoner rape. During two days in 1973, when he was in jail on charges of trespassing on White House property during a peace protest, Donaldson was gang-raped approximately 60 times.

Donaldson, who was also known as "Donny the Punk," was a powerful and uncompromising writer. As President of SPR, Donaldson wrote articles and editorials on prison sexual assault and was featured in media outlets nationwide, including The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and 60 Minutes. He also coordinated SPR's amicus brief for the groundbreaking Supreme Court case on prisoner rape, Farmer v. Brennan.

Donaldson launched SPR's website and litigated to protect its content. In April 1996, he testified on SPR's behalf in the case ACLU v. Reno, which challenged the constitutionality of the recently-created Communications Decency Act. The act, which sought to create standards for "decency" for content posted on the Internet, was opposed by SPR because it would have restricted access to the sometimes-explicit accounts of rape posted on the group's website. The Supreme Court declared the CDA unconstitutional in June 1997.

In 1996, after the death of Donaldson - as a result of AIDS, which he contracted during a prison sexual assault - Don Collins, SPR's former Vice President, became the group's President. Collins, also a prisoner rape survivor, served until 1998, when he was forced to resign for health reasons.

Tom Cahill followed Collins as SPR's President. Cahill recalls that during the early days of the organization he directed the group out of what was then his home: "A beat-up old camper on the back of an equally beat-up old pick-up truck parked mostly on the streets of San Francisco." He later moved the operation of SPR to a barn on a ranch north of San Francisco.

Cahill has continually drawn attention to the callousness of some corrections officials who do little to address rape behind bars - something he experienced firsthand. Arrested for civil disobedience in 1968, he was gang-raped and tortured by other jail inmates for more than 24 hours.

In 2001, due to the increasing national attention the issue of inmate sexual assault was finally beginning to receive, as well as to the generosity of its donors, SPR underwent a significant transformation. The group opened its first permanent office, in Los Angeles, and hired Lara Stemple, a lawyer with a background in human rights, as its Executive Director.

SPR was instrumental in securing passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003, the first-ever federal law addressing prisoner rape. SPR worked with Senators and Representatives on both sides of the aisle to develop the legislation and led a broad coalition of non-governmental organizations to support it. Since PREA was signed into law by President Bush in September 2003, SPR has turned its attention to ensuring that the law is meaningfully implemented.

More than a quarter century after its inception, SPR remains the only organization in the U.S. that is dedicated exclusively to the elimination of sexual violence in detention. SPR engages more survivors than ever in its work. Male and female survivors of sexual assault in custody serve on SPR's Board of Directors, its Board of Advisors, and as members of its Survivor Speakers List. SPR is currently led by Executive Director Lovisa Stannow, an experienced human rights advocate. David Kaiser, a writer living in New York, serves as the President of the Board of Directors.


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